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This year's Section VI dual meet champions will head to inaugural state tournament

Last year's inaugural Section VI Dual Team Championships were an overwhelming success in the eyes of area wrestling coaches.

An estimated 1,000 spectators at Starpoint watched No. 2 Pioneer beat No. 1 Falconer via tiebreaker for the Division II title and No. 4 Niagara Wheatfield upset the top two seeds in the field to win the D-I crown.

“It was very exciting for our team,” Pioneer coach Chris Edwards said. “Earlier in the year we lost to Falconer by a point at the Letchworth Duals. Our goal last year was to be the first Section VI dual champions, and to do it against a program like Falconer meant a lot to us.”

The drama-filled event brought attention to a sport that’s seeing its participation numbers decline nationwide. With 16 schools competing under one roof, there were a lot of other programs not participating that came out and watched the action unfold.

There’s also a new incentive for this year’s championships Saturday at Lancaster Field House. The winners will represent Section VI in the first state dual meet championships on Jan. 27 at SRC Arena in Syracuse.

“It’s just like any other sport now,” Falconer coach Drew Wilcox said. “Win and continue your team season. I don’t feel it adds any more pressure but adds a little extra anticipation to it as well.”

Schools vying for those two guaranteed spots include Lancaster, the No. 1 seed in D-I, followed in order by Grand Island, Clarence, Niagara Wheatfield, Hamburg, Williamsville South, Lockport and Frontier. Olean is the top D-II seed, followed by Pioneer, Iroquois, Falconer, Newfane, Akron/Alden, Albion and Randolph. The first round starts at 10 a.m., while finals start at 4 p.m.

“We struggle every year with trying to grow the sport because unless you win, it’s not very rewarding,” Lancaster coach Ron Lorenz said. “The state is trying to find as many opportunities to grow the sport as they can. Other states do this, so New York is taking strides to align themselves with what the nation is doing.”

The number of boys wrestling has decreased each year since 2010-11, according to surveys by the National Federation of State High School Associations. That number of 273,732 decreased to 244,804 in 2016-17, the lowest since there were 243,009 wrestling in 2004-05.

“We started out with 45 kids and are down to 30 now, which is still doing better than most teams,” Wilcox said. “We try to make working hard fun. It’s a tough thing to do, and you have to find a way to do that while having team and individual success.”

“You see that with team mergers. A bunch of teams in Western New York are combining to keep their programs alive,” Lorenz said. “The numbers are falling, but I’m pretty optimistic. With the popularity of Mixed Martial Arts and the scare of concussions in football, I think we’ll see some kids turn toward wrestling.”

Other coaches around Section VI share Lorenz’s optimism and believe that the added emphasis on the team duals can contribute to that.

“It’s sad to see kids who’ve wrestled since they were 5 years old lose in the sectional finals and never make it,” Niagara Wheatfield coach Rick Sweney said. “You got kids that might have a 50 to 90 percent winning percentage but don’t make it to states because there’s just another top wrestler in the way. This way the whole 15 kids get to go. It’s a big thing for them. They get a patch.”

“We have kids on our team, four- and five-year starters, that would have never had the opportunity to go to the state tournament at the individual level,” Edwards said. “It means a lot to those kids who are not No. 1 ranked looking to go to states individually. It’s something you can really measure the entire program by.”

Wrestling is still often judged by individual success. The dual meet format now puts the team front and center. Every grappler in the lineup must play a role, even if it may be saving points by simply not losing via pinfall.

“I think it’s something New York State had to do to take the next step in building the sport,” Wilcox said. “I’m glad they’re taking it to the state level. For the kids that have no shot at making it individually, to have a role player focused and working as hard as the kid who’s working toward an individual state title gives the kids something to shoot for.”

Corey Keefe from Falconer defeated Tristan Makowski from Pioneer at 220 pounds during the 2017 Section VI Dual-Meet Tournament. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Not all sections across the state are seeing it as a golden opportunity to promote the sport.

Section V held its first dual meet championships Saturday and Tuesday to determine the Rochester representatives for the statewide finals. Like Section VI, there were eight spots available per division. Only six schools applied in each bracket.

“I’m glad we got our dry run in last year so everyone knows how the tournament and seeding mechanics are going to work heading into states,” Edwards said. “I’m pretty sure 15 or 16 D-II teams applied to get into the eight-team tournament, and I think that speaks volumes to what area coaches think about it.”

Some Section V coaches were taking a wait-and-see approach and leaving the possibility open to competing in 2019.

"I think there are other teams that belong," Section V wrestling coordinator Bill Hadsell told the Democrat & Chronicle last week. "There is a lot of wrestling. It's a lot of extra wrestling."

Others were averse to risking injury and putting additional wear and tear on their athletes, choosing instead to focus on the individual championships the last weekend of February.

“I think part of it, for us in particular, in the last few years we have been fortunate to not go through many injuries,” Edwards said. “This year we’ve had a big rash of injuries, and that’ll definitely play a role this weekend. Getting 30 kids through the season healthy as opposed to just your four or five studs is a big point as well.”

Despite the risks, the positives still outweigh the negatives for those in Section VI.

“I personally love it,” Lorenz said, “and I know my kids actually like the team format more than the individual. Even coaches are gearing their teams to build stronger as a whole rather than just focusing on the top individual wrestlers.”

“I think the programs that are all in the mix to win this championship, they’re all big into the team,” Edwards said. “You don’t get to the top of the rankings without being team-oriented.”

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