West York coach Brian Gross has been involved with wrestling for 40 years.
During that time, he's seen plenty of changes, but a proposed decrease in the sport's weight classes has him worried about how the plan could impact wrestling’s future.
A couple of his York-Adams peers are also concerned.
The PIAA Board of Directors recently passed a provision to decrease the number of weight classes from 14 to 12 for the 2020-2021 academic year and create a three-year pilot program.
“I definitely don’t think it’s good for the sport,” Gross said. “It’s a sport that’s very demanding and kids don’t want to put the time in if they’re just going to sit on the bench.”
The proposal is a response to what PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi said was a pattern of increased forfeits in lower weight classes. Lombardi told PennLive.com that he felt the proposal would cut down the number of forfeits and make dual meets a better experience for fans and coaches.
But is it better for the future of the sport?
Dallastown coach Dave Gable said that while forfeits have been an issue recently, the bigger issue is the declining roster sizes that most teams are faced with.
“It may, in the short term, reduce forfeits in some schools,” Gable said. “I am looking more at the big picture. Is it something that five years from now we’re going to see schools that had low participation numbers increasing the number of wrestlers in their programs because there are fewer forfeits? I am not sure we're going to see that.”
The classes: The 12 weight classes in the PIAA proposal are: 110, 118, 125, 132, 138, 145, 152, 160, 170, 190, 215 and 285.
The 14 weight classes currently used are: 106, 113, 120, 126, 132, 138, 145, 152, 160, 170, 182, 195, 220 and 285.
With the lightest weight class climbing to 110, York Suburban coach Brian Gentzyel said that smaller athletes might decide to be home schooled or go to a private school for a year before beginning their freshman year, so they can make the lightest weight class.
Gentzyel echoed the sentiments expressed by Gable and Gross toward the proposal, which he said could push kids who are on the fence about participating to pick another sport where they are likely to get more playing time.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Gentzyel. “I know there’s a need to figure out what to do with all the forfeits and small teams, but I don’t know if that’s going to solve the problem.”
Fewer opportunities: If the PIAA proposal is approved, which won’t be voted on until April 2020, there would be fewer opportunities for wrestlers to compete in matches for schools that have enough wrestlers under the current weight-class format.
A part of the proposal would also allow teams to enter two wrestlers in the same weight class in tournaments where there are nine or more teams, which would give more opportunities for the athletes to compete.
Gable and Gentzyel added that a decrease to an odd number of weight classes, such as 13, would make more sense than 12 or the current 14 to eliminate tiebreaker scenarios that most fans don't understand. In cases of ties, there would be a clear tiebreaker with 13 weight classes — the team with the most individual wins.
Bigger issue is participation: All three coaches agreed that the bigger issue for wrestling, beyond forfeits, is the lack of athletes participating in the sport. They said there are several factors influencing athletes to choose other sports.
According to the coaches, the main problem in recruiting athletes is the lack of exposure to the sport at youth levels. With most parents more familiar with football, basketball and baseball, it takes an extra effort to get their kids interested and involved in wrestling.
After a few years of declining participation, Gentzyel and Suburban renewed their efforts to have a youth wrestling program, the Trojan Wrestling Club. Gentzyel is the club's vice president. He attributed the rise in wrestlers on his high school roster to the exposure the youth club gave to young athletes.
Ambassadors needed: With so many options for kids to choose from, Gentzyel said the way to solve the issue with forfeits isn’t fewer weight classes, but more effort by coaches to be ambassadors of the sport.
“It’s all about promoting at the lower levels,” Gentzyel said. “It takes that kind of commitment from varsity coaches to want to be involved in those levels, because if you think (wrestlers) are just going to come your way, I don’t think that’s going to happen for most places.”
Reach Rob Rose at firstname.lastname@example.org.