Chattanooga's success hosting state wrestling could bring tournaments back

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / McCallie's Alex Whitworth, right, stares at Battle Ground Academy's Jack Revere just before the start of their 170-pound final in the TSSAA Division II state traditional tournament Feb. 25 at the Chattanooga Convention Center. Whitworth won 19-3 to become a five-time individual state champion.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / McCallie's Alex Whitworth, right, stares at Battle Ground Academy's Jack Revere just before the start of their 170-pound final in the TSSAA Division II state traditional tournament Feb. 25 at the Chattanooga Convention Center. Whitworth won 19-3 to become a five-time individual state champion.

The return of state championship high school wrestling to Chattanooga did not disappoint.

Area athletes accounted for 17 individual titles, Baylor and Cleveland were the top teams in two of the three divisions - with Signal Mountain the runner-up in the other - and the TSSAA's traditional tournaments had a smooth three-day run last week at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

That last point mattered as much to the rest of the state as the Scenic City and the surrounding area.

"We knew from the beginning of the season it was going to be very challenging for our winter sports due to COVID-19," said Mark Reeves, a TSSAA assistant executive director who oversees wrestling. "To be able to see those kids walk off the mat with smiles on their faces was everything. It was a glorious week to be had by all who love this sport. The support of the Chattanooga wrestling community as a whole was outstanding."

Tickets sold out rather quickly for all three days as nearly 2,000 people were in attendance over the course of the event, which had not been held in Chattanooga in more than a decade but, after a successful return, could be back again next season. Along with the Chattanooga Convention Center, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's McKenzie Arena and the Williamson County Ag Expo Park - which had settled into a longtime role as host but was being used as a COVID-19 testing center this winter - are all possible sites for next year's competition.

"We haven't had two entities bidding for the wrestling tournament at the same time in my tenure," Reeves said. "If that's the case, then we will have to decide if we put that out for bid or do we select one. That will have to be decided pretty quickly because an event like this takes a lot of time to plan."

photo Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / The crowd cheers after Signal Mountain's Ethan Uhorchuk, right, pinned Gibbs' Porter Finstad in the 106-pound final during the TSSAA Class A/AA state traditional tournament Feb. 24 at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

Local programs produced multiple highlights last week, including McCallie 170-pounder Alex Whitworth becoming the third five-time TSSAA individual champion from Chattanooga over the past decade. The future Harvard wrestler joined the exclusive club with McCallie's T.J. Duncan (2007-11) and Baylor's Zach Watson (2008-12), who went on to wrestle at Maryland and Virginia, respectively.

All three five-time champs were coached by Matt Pitts, a McCallie assistant and former UTC wrestler whose first job out of college was at Baylor.

"They are all different in their own way, but they all had the same drive as fierce competitors," Pitts said. "They started wrestling at a young age and were ready to go. They didn't talk about winning state all five years, but I could tell it was a goal for all of them. All three also have great families and made a lot of sacrifices for the boys. They all wanted to do it and to be the best."

Whitworth has trained for 10 years with Pitts, who opened Grindhouse Wrestling School in Calhoun in 2011. Pitts said Whitworth is one of the most dominant wrestlers from the top position he has ever coached.

"Alex is a load," said Pitts, who believes his coaching benefited from working with Whitworth. "He could get even bigger in college and is really going to shine with the way college wrestling points work. He is very smart, and the gears are always turning. He's a tremendous student of the sport. Like the other two, he goes out there to dominate when he wrestles.

"I can't wait to watch him for the next several years. I truly believe he could be starting as just a freshman, and that's very tough to do."

Contact Patrick MacCoon at pmaccoon@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @PMacCoon.