For 16 years, a blue-collar West Virginia city has rolled out the red carpet for young wrestlers who come to compete in the state championship.
Nothing matters more here this weekend than the hundreds of young men who have come to town chasing down the same dream.
Some travel from six hours away. Others walk down the block. But for the past few months, they all have sweated through three-hour practices, counted calories, and wrestled their hearts out for a spot in what many of them call "The Show."
For the next three days, under the lights of an arena packed with 5,000 fans, the state’s best wrestlers will compete in the West Virginia State High School Wrestling Tournament. For the past 16 years, this city along the Ohio River has welcomed the athletes and their families as old friends.
|Listen to audio coverage from the tournament, including interviews with the wrestlers, coaches, and tournament volunteers.||
Television-news trucks fill the parking lot. Political candidates kiss babies. Stands fill with raucous cheering sections, forming a clash of school colors representing more than 70 high schools. "We’re not just wrestling for the school, but for the whole community," says Jared Dudley, a senior at Huntington High School who has looked forward to this weekend since the leaves began changing colors and wrestling practice started last fall. His parents, uncles, and cousins are all here to watch him compete. "Just about the whole family tree," as he describes it.
For a city that has survived lost factory jobs and the exodus of some 35,000 residents since the 1950s, the three-day state tournament in late February has become a local fixture—a beloved tradition that has stayed put. As much as the action on the mats, the event is about high schoolers screaming for friends, girls checking out boys and the other way around, moms consoling sons fighting tears after tough losses, and a small army of volunteers who bake pies, haul mats into the arena, and pass down wrestling lore.
"It’s like a great big family reunion," says Ethel Lou St. Clair, a Huntington native who has missed only one state tournament.
A winter without the tournament in Huntington—a city of 51,000 in the southwest part of the state that grew up as an industrial railroad hub—would be hard for many to imagine.
For 16 years, a blue-collar West
Virginia city has rolled out the red carpet for young wrestlers who
come to compete in the state championship. The West Virginia State
Wrestling Championships are held at Huntington's Big Sandy
Superstore Arena. Arena.
—James W. Prichard
St. Clair, a retired gym teacher, has followed the sport since her son wrestled at Huntington High 20 years ago. You can find the spry 67-year-old collecting event passes from coaches and reporters at the back door of the arena, as she has for more than a decade. The work doesn’t allow her to catch much of the competition, but she occasionally slips away to watch a few of the 900 matches in 14 different weight classes that take place on eight wrestling mats. "I see wrestlers here who I had in 1st grade," she says.
Her son and daughter also have been fixtures here for years. Robert St. Clair wrestled for Huntington High in the 1980s and now works at the head scorer’s table, tabulating scores brought by students who relay results from the mats. "We tell parents once you volunteer, you’re always a volunteer," he says. "We don’t let them quit."
Another "volunteer for life," his sister Cathy Curry, drives six hours from Charles Town, W.Va., each year to work alongside Robert at the scorers’ table. She began pitching in as a mat maid, as they used to call volunteers, when she was a sophomore at Huntington High in the 1970s.
"I’m a glutton for punishment," she jokes. "I just really enjoy the camaraderie with everyone."
Memories from the tournament linger long after the last match. Men graying on top and softening in the middle still talk about the experience in almost-sacred tones. "Every high school wrestler wants to go to state and win," says Richard Johnson, a minister and an assistant coach at Huntington High who won two consecutive state titles in the 1970s.
"In high school, the glamour and the glory you have is being state champ," he remembers. "I look back on those times and I wish I could do it again. They were some of the best times I ever had. This is it. This is what you work for all season."
Coach Bill Archer, center, and his
son and assistant coach, Rob, right, give some advice to the
official during one of their senior's quarter final matches
—James W. Prichard
Bill Archer, a wiry thin man who still has the look of a guy who could pin an opponent to a mat, lives for this time of year. Archer won a state wrestling championship for Huntington High back in 1966 as a 127- pound lightweight. A legend in state wrestling circles, Archer went on to wrestle at Marshall University in town. For the past three decades, he’s been the wrestling coach at his former high school, and an assistant principal there.
Archer also directs the state wrestling tournament. His wife and college sweetheart, Diane, keeps score and helps run the hospitality tent, where coaches can find a hot plate of food. Archer’s 28-year-old son Rob, a dead ringer for a younger version of his old man, is an assistant coach.
"Wrestling is a lot like death," the coach muses. "There is a lot of family involved."
For Diane Archer, the tournament and the extended wrestling community it brings together every year has become a way of life. "Once you marry into this," she says one afternoon as she helps set up at the arena, "you don’t get out."
The wrestling tournament produces several undisputed winners even before the first pin is made: Huntington's restaurant's and hotels.
Craig Warner, the sales director for the Cabell-Huntington Convention and Visitors Bureau, estimates that over the next three days, about 450 wrestlers and their coaches and family members will each spend about $150 a day on hotels, food, and entertainment.
"When they come to an athletic event like this, they are in a spending mood," Warner says. All of the city’s 1,400 hotel rooms are booked during the tournament, as are many others right over the border in Ohio and Kentucky.
"We’re already sold out for next year’s tournament," says Anna Pope, the general manager of the local Ramada Inn, where almost all of the 60 rooms are filled with wrestlers and coaches. At the Holiday Inn right next to Huntington’s downtown arena, general manager Richard Monga is also doing a brisk business.
"This is definitely one of the biggest weekends for us," Monga says. "The wrestlers are a little high on testosterone, but they’re well-behaved."
And if there is one thing 500 teenage wrestlers are in no short supply of, it’s a serious appetite.
Over at Bowincal, a family-owned restaurant where you can choose from nine types of hot dogs, a sign in the window reads: "Welcome, West Virginia State Wrestlers." Jean Massie, 76, opened this tiny restaurant with red-checkered cloth tables two decades ago, and has been serving hungry wrestlers every year. "They eat a lot of fries," she says.
Just after 11 a.m. on the Thursday that the tournament begins, T.J.’s Billiards is quiet until a van full of wrestlers and coaches pulls up. Wearing yellow-and-blue school jackets, the team from Hedgesville High School walks in. "I love this place," one of the wrestlers says. Soon the rap music of 50 Cent and Eminem flows from the jukebox.
In the first round of matches in
the AAA 130 lbs weight division, Justin Wharton of Woodrow Wilson
is wrenched over by Jon Smith of Jefferson Thursday afternoon.
Wharton won bout.
—James W. Prichard
"Man, is there anything free in here today?" shouts Bill Whittington, the team’s gregarious head coach. He has brought his team here for several years to relax before weigh-ins. Whittington immediately begins talking wrestling with owner Jay Nelson, who has two sons competing in the tournament for Huntington High.
Hedgesville High, a school in the state’s eastern panhandle about six hours from Huntington, arrived in town just a few hours earlier.
Nelson loves having the wrestlers stop in each year. "The teams are always good to us," he says. "This tournament is fantastic for Huntington."
Hedgesville freshman William Roberts is psyched to be part of the trip. "I’m just excited about getting to come to state as a freshman," he says. "The team has been telling me how great it is. … Everyone is talking about the lemonade in the arena. Everyone loves the lemonade." He grins and heads back to the pool table to angle in a shot.
Coach Whittington sees the tournament as an opportunity to earn statewide respect for his wrestling program, and says it gives the athletes a chance to travel outside their community. "They will carry these memories with them the rest of their lives," he says.
For the most part, he adds, the athletes behave well. "The biggest problems we have," he says, "is getting them to turn off their video games and go to bed at night."
Senior Josh Nicholson wants to savor the final wrestling matches of his career. Come June, he will head to Parris Island in South Carolina for Marine Corps boot camp. But today, the baby-faced teenager wearing droopy jeans and tinted sunglasses has other things on his mind. "I like the road trip," he says. "We just listen to music and sing. Coach always likes to listen to that ’70s and ’80s rock. … But once you get here, it’s all business."
On Saturday, a cheer begins to build among the thousands of fans here for championship night. A few spotlights focus on the two wrestling mats in the center of the floor. Wrestlers are introduced to the music of "Eye of the Tiger" from the movie "Rocky," and slowly file on to the floor to a standing ovation.
"Gentleman, shake hands and let’s get ready to wrestle," the tournament announcer says.
Two crosstown rival high schools—Parkersburg and Parkersburg South—are blowing away the competition. The schools have dominated the state tournament for several years, and Parkersburg has pulled ahead of South in team results and is headed to a second consecutive state title.
The hometown team, Huntington High, is in third. Only one Highlander, senior Kenny Hutchinson, is in the finals. He faces Lou Thomas, a 215-pound star from Parkersburg who is ranked as one of the nation’s best wrestlers.
From L to R: Sophomore Ronnie
Nelson, senior Jesse Mestrovis, senior Bob Hercules and freshman
Dusty Hill rest before the start of the matches Thursday
—James W. Prichard
Seventy-year-old Bill Garvin may not be as loud as the Parkersburg students a few rows above him, but as he snacks on a hot dog with his wife, Sharon, he keeps a close eye on the competition. "We follow the wrestlers on the Internet all year," Garvin says. "I’m watching kids now I’ve seen move up from middle school."
Tonight, though, he will have to do some consoling. His grandson Jared, a senior at Morgantown High School who entered the tournament with one defeat in 45 matches, has lost. "He will be crushed," Garvin says. "I’m just going to tell him third place is as good as first place. That’s how you handle life."
Other spectators are mixing business with pleasure. Natalie Tennant came to root for her brother David, the first-year head coach at North Marion High School. She’s also running for West Virginia secretary of state.
"I came to support my brother and do a bit of politicking," Tennant says. "Every school here is my school now because I need votes from every county." And she’s brought a secret weapon sure to melt hearts: her 2-year-old daughter Delaney, whose shirt reads "Vote for My Mommy."
Tennant describes the tournament as the best of sports and community coming together. "This is Americana right here," she says with a sweeping gesture at the crowd. "This is it."
If this weekend had a soundtrack it would be the rock 'n' roll of John Mellencamp singing about small towns or Bruce Springsteen aching for those "Glory Days."
The Marines Corps’ information table attracts a gaggle of teenage boys testing their muscles at a pull-up bar. Chatty cellphone conversations can be overheard between giddy teens arranging social plans. American flags are out in abundance on T-shirts and cars.
Oak Glen junior Brandon Miller wins
his quarter final match in the 112 weight class Friday.
—James W. Prichard
For wrestling fans, it doesn’t get much better. “If you enjoy wrestling, where else can you find eight mats going at one time?” asks Larry Conaway, a longtime tournament fan. “You get hooked.” Others have different agendas. “I’m here to hang out and look for boys,” confides Megan Adkins, a 17-year-old junior at Cabell Midland High School. She’s here with a few well-coiffed friends toting purses and cellphones. “I don’t really get it,” she comments about the wrestling, before heading off to more pressing matters.
At the trainer’s table, where injured wrestlers and the occasional referee are taken for medical treatment, Justin Ross has his hands full. The graduate assistant from Marshall University and a Huntington High trainer says two wrestlers have been sent to the hospital with muscle strains, pinched nerves, or concussions. “Wrestling is a rough sport,” he says.
Kenny Hutchinson would agree. Right now the Huntington High senior has all he can handle in the last match of his career against Parkersburg’s Lou Thomas. Hutchinson tries to use his quickness to tie up Thomas, but he’s overpowered and quickly pinned for a loss. Hutchinson’s high school wrestling career is over. He heads to the locker room. Before he gets there, parents and friends swarm him with hugs and slaps on the back.
“I worked all year to be in the finals, and I achieved my goal,” Hutchinson says after changing and getting a few more hugs from friends. “It felt great. I felt like a champion.” He pauses for a few seconds in the quiet of an emptying arena. “I will miss everything. I will miss everything from lacing up my shoes to getting your hands raised when you win.”
If the senior is already fondly looking back, Bill Archer is looking ahead. “Now,” the coach says as he packs up, “we start working on next year.”
Learn more:Related audio coverage and interviews for this story are available atwww.edweek.org/wrestling.
Vol. 23, Issue 28, Pages 33-36