SANBORN -- Christmas, New Year's and Hanukkah have come and gone for another season, but this weekend was still a joyous occasion for Eric Knuutila.
The first weekend in January typically is one of the most wonderful times of the year for the Niagara County Community College veteran wrestling coach. With the Niagara Frontier Wrestling Officials Association conducting the 26th edition of its annual tournament on the NCCC campus, Knuutila had an opportunity to engage in his usual post-holidays routine.
Set up wrestling mats, tables, chairs and a concession stand.
The fun part began Friday.
He scouted. Then he scouted some more in hopes of recruiting another soon-to-be high school graduate with the potential to be a future Junior College All-American or national champion.
NCCC is responsible for setting up the building for use. The Niagara Frontier Wresting Officials Association does the rest -- including setting up the tournament brackets.
"The reason we do it is recruiting. And we get more people [to come to the school] than just wrestlers who come here just for the tournament, which is good," said Knuutila, who is in his 34th season as NCCC's coach.
"It's been a happy marriage for 26 years," he said of the tourney. ". . . It's a huge tournament, but [all the setup work] is worth the effort."
The two-day event attracts a minimum of 32 high school teams from the Western New York, Rochester-area Section V and, typically, downstate or out of state. Participants usually have strong programs -- and talented wrestlers. And that means the weekend affords Knuutila the luxury of looking at potential recruits while only having to make a 15-minute drive from his Pendleton home.
Chances are Knuutila already is familiar with most of the participants. In the event someone has slipped through the cracks -- the grappler won't be unknown for long.
Since there is a lot of down time for wrestlers in the event, if any of them are curious about the school or wrestling program, there are current trailblazers on hand to help them.
"It's good because my guys are not wrestling, so we'll have my team show anyone who wishes a tour of the campus in between rounds," Knuutila said. "This way they can come, look over the campus, see if they like it and then come back for a formal visit."
Since the high school wrestlers are on campus for the event, this doesn't count as an official school visit for either side.
There have been numerous wrestlers who have participated in this event and helped Knuutila's program remain among the best in the nation. Past juco national champions who have wrestled in the tournament include current ultimate fighting champion Rashad Evans (Niagara-Wheatfield), who was also a multiple NFWOA champion; Dan Uhteg (Clarence) and Mark Jurek (Tonawanda).
NCCC wrestlers have claimed four individual national championships during Knuutila's career, as well as one national runner-up award and 28 All-Americans.
Of the 24 wrestlers on NCCC's current roster, 18 are NFWOA Tournament alumni -- including six of the Trailblazers' 10 starters. Five of those starters graduated from Niagara County high schools, including Matt Bunce (Lew-Port), Joe Moran (Roy-Hart), Mark O'Connor (Barker), Dale DeBacco (Niagara Falls) and Jeremy Stopa (Newfane). DeBacco, who wrestles in the 149-pound class, leads the team with 24 victories.
"It's a great, great tournament, especially if you have upper-level kids," Barker coach Bill Bruning said. "Eric doesn't need to really see them at that tournament. He's involved in a lot of wrestling [in the area], like the Super Six [the club at UB that prepares grapplers for Empire State Games with instruction in Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling]. He runs summer camps at UB.
"I think a lot of kids will use that tournament to gauge their progress for the season because we still have six weeks before [the Section VI Tournament] and state qualifiers. . . . Plus, it's a great team event. It's an opportunity for strong teams to showcase their teams."
The opportunity arose 26 years ago because Knuutila and the Niagara Frontier Wrestling Officials Association wanted an event to showcase scholastic talent. Both parties had been clamoring for an event independently to then-Section VI wrestling chairman Nunzio Maraiona. He brought the two sides together, and they hammered out the details that formed one of the best in-season tournaments in the state.
The NFWOA Tournament led to the creation of the Southern Tier Wrestling Officials Association Tournament, which models itself after the one at NCCC.