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Sandburg teammates hoist the championship trophy during the IHSA wrestling dual team state championship Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012, in the U.S. Cellular Coliseum at 101 S. Madison St. in Bloomington. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
The first month or so of the wrestling season has taught us that there are four teams that could be serious contenders for the Class 3A state title.
In no particular order, they’re defending champ Sandburg, 2012 runner-up Oak Park-River Forest, Marmion and Marist.
What last month’s IHSA announcement of the state series assignments taught us — and those teams — is that life isn’t fair.
For the second straight season, Sandburg and Marist were put in the same regional. The survivor is on a collision course with Oak Park in the state quarterfinals.
So of the four best teams in the state, only two will even make it to the Class 3A semifinals. As you might expect, this isn’t sitting well with most concerned.
“I don’t think that’s right,” Oak Park 132-pounder Larry Early said. “I think the best teams should be down at state. I think it should be us, Marist, Carl Sandburg, Marmion, Glenbard North, all of them.
“I don’t think it’s fair to Marist and Sandburg. One of their dreams is going to end at regionals. I think that’s kind of messed up.”
Sandburg 182-pounder Ricky Robertson is more or less resigned to the situation.
“Whatever happens, happens,” he said. “But we’re not too happy about it. I don’t think OP-RF or Marist are any happier than we are.”
Oak Park coach Mike Powell and Sandburg coach Eric Siebert see this as another missed opportunity to grow an event — the team wrestling series — that the Illinois High School Association has never really figured out how to market.
The team finals have hopscotched across the state from Champaign to East Peoria to Rock Island to Bloomington and in one incarnation were more or less an afterthought to the individual state finals. For years in the 1990s and early 2000s, it was a foregone conclusion that the Catholic League champ would win state.
But then Mike Polz’s Sandburg squads won three years in a row and ever since, parity has ruled, bringing suspense and interest back to the event.
The momentum may disappear, though, if the best teams keep knocking each other off early and the state finals become an afterthought.
“As I coach, I don’t care [about the pairings],” Siebert said. “You have to beat the best to be the best. As an advocate for our sport, it’s sad. Our sport is not being showcased as it should.”
If Powell had his way, the individual state meet would be scored (as it was until 1983) and trophies would be given to the top four teams. He’d also seed the teams in at the sectional level — as the IHSA does for other team sports — and he’d move the team finals from Bloomington’s U.S. Cellular Coliseum to the UIC Pavilion or Allstate Arena, where he believes a crowd of 8,000-10,000 would be a realistic goal.
If you build a better state tournament, they will come, Powell believes.
“Fans don’t want to see [a score of] 52-16 in the finals,” he said. “Nothing against the teams coming out of the other side, but Carl Sandburg is an unbelievable team. One of us isn’t going to get a trophy.”
None of this even addresses another anomaly of the team wrestling series, which changes the method of advancement in mid-stream. The winner of the regional, scored tournament-style, moves on to sectional and state competition, where teams go head-to-head in duals.
In many cases, the best team is the best team, no matter how you score it.
But when teams are as talented and deep as Sandburg and Marist, the format could matter when it comes to deciding who’s better.
So besides seeding the sectionals to keep them apart, bringing back team regionals — with the top two finishers in the individual regionals advancing — would be another way to restore some fairness to the process of determining who’s the best wrestling team in the state.