Decisive weekend looms for wrestlers

It’s the best and worst day of the season, with joy and agony happening simultaneously dozens of times at venues all over the state.

The pinnacle moment of the season for just about every wrestler comes on the second day of the district tournament, during one of the most grueling, competitive and heart-wrenching six minutes you’ll ever see.

The top four placers at each district wrestling tournament advance to state, which is often the career goal of a high school wrestler. There are only 42 state champions out of 672 participants at the tournament, so those who are realistic about earning that divine distinction focus more on reaching state than winning it.

Just being able to experience what it’s like to walk out of a notoriously dark tunnel — lined with legends of the sport pictured on the walls — and into the Schottenstein Center as thousands of fans cheer is enough to satisfy the fix for kids who physically exhaust themselves on a daily basis to earn such a chance. It must be a euphoric feeling to capture a dream that takes so much blood, sweat and tears. It’s equally devastating for those who come up just short.

Longtime Jackson-Milton coach Dave Tomaino told me when he retired two years ago that the second day of the district tournament will be the one thing he doesn’t miss about being a head coach. Seeing the disappointment on the face of a kid who gave all he could to the sport is a helpless feeling.

“That is the worst day of the year, or it’s the best day of the year,” said Tomaino, who coached for 29 seasons and led 50 wrestlers to the state tournament. “More times than not, it’s the worst day. That takes a smidgen of your life away, and I had 29 smidgens taken away.”

That’s how much reaching state means to coaches and wrestlers. It’s more than a goal. In that moment, it’s everything they’ve ever wanted. It’s months of hard work. It’s sacrificing all the “fun” things everyone else was doing while they were at offseason tournaments and practices.

It’s watching everything they eat and drink and dealing with sweltering-hot practice rooms during a long, grueling season. Yes, time heals all wounds for those who fall short, but the sting can linger.

And yet, it sure provides amazing drama. The chance to advance to state or go home generally comes down to a single match. In double-elimination wrestling tournaments, each weight class has a winner’s bracket and a consolation bracket. The wrestlers who reach the championship match are the last two in the winner’s bracket, and they wrestle for first and second place, which means they’ve qualified for state. The consolation bracket, which holds a win-or-go-home format, encompasses everyone else, and the battle to reach the consolation final is as fierce as you’ll see in any sport.

To reach the consolation final, you must win a consolation semifinal, and that’s where all hell breaks loose. Four wrestlers battle for the final two spots to the state tournament (the victors wrestle for third place and thus automatically qualify). These relentless semifinal duels are epic, insanely intense and can be downright hard to watch because the outcome means so much to both competitors.

While one person is elated with joy and erupting in exuberance, the other must find a way to dejectedly peel himself off the mat, shake this person’s hand and try to make sense of the abrupt ending. Try being the coach or parent of that child. There are no words to console them. It’s complete devastation. It’s why “smidgens” of life are taken away.

As harsh as that sounds, those same high-stakes are what make for great entertainment to fans. The area has plenty of potential qualifiers — several of whom will likely take part in this match. Adding to the tension is the fact that some teams haven’t had a state qualifier in decades, but this could be the year that changes. All it takes is one wrestler getting hot at the right time (like a basketball player who can’t miss) to change the fortunes of a program. Or, maybe it’s not their year. Maybe it’s a last-second, overtime loss in a consolation semifinal that sends them into a pit of depression. It happens regularly.

The climactic conclusion only comes once a year, and while it can be hard to watch for some, it’s impossible not to for most.