Things learned, observed in Far East high school wrestling tournament week
Musings, mutterings and the occasional schmahts as Ornauer ruefully remembers how much he hates colds:
Welcome back to the top of the wrestling world, Kubasaki and Zama American. For the Trojans, after an absence of two years, tying Robert D. Edgren for the most Division II titles, with four, and for the Dragons, after an absence of four, as they extended their Pacific record for most Far East team titles in any sport to 23.
It puts coach Ron Geist in a pantheon of Kubasaki coaching greats who’ve tacked a Far East wrestling banner on the hallowed walls of the Dragons Den. And four more individual gold medalists to boot, giving the team an even hundred on the team’s Wall of Fame, rebuilt after the wall in the old room was painted over and all the names were feared lost.
Geist joins prior Dragons coaching winners Terry Chumley, Jeff Pellaton – he of the Pacific-record 13 team titles – Jim Feller, Ed Davies and the late Jerry Weekes who’ve helmed team-champion teams in the green and white. And for Geist, it was a huge boost after suffering a stroke last June; he seems well on his way to total recovery and the championship sure put an extra spring in his step.
But oh, the drama we all endured along the way. Kubasaki won its team championships by razor-thin margins, 78-77 in the team-points chase with host Nile C. Kinnick in the individual freestyle tournament, and needing four victories in the last four bouts to rally from a 23-18 deficit to down the same Red Devils 32-26 in the dual-meet phase.
Tyshon Butler (168), a former Red Devil shining at his old haunt Aaron Stravers (180), two-time gold-medalist Fred Suniga (215) and heavyweight Josiah Allen came through when the Dragons needed it most. A virtuoso performance, three tight decisions by the first three, followed by a meet- and title-clinching pin by Allen.
As was the case in last month’s “Beast of the Far East” Tournament, also at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, Kubasaki won its gold-medal bouts – four of them – when it counted, while the runner-up – in this case Kinnick – had just one gold medalist and five silver medalists. Kubasaki edged Kadena at “Beast” in similar manner last month.
For Kinnick coach Gary Wilson and his charges, it was small consolation to know that they were just one gold medal short in the freestyle and one bout victory shy in the dual to bring home the titles.
It was readily apparent at season’s beginning that coach Steve Scott on numbers alone had what it took to vault back to Division II title country.
Still, the wrestlers have to get it done on the mat, and his best athletes, former Far East Outstanding Wrestler Chad Wilder (158) and Mitchell Harrison (180) had to get it done against some rather strong opposition, to include Stravers and his former Kinnick teammate Ian O’Brien, while Wilder tussled early during the season against Kinnick’s Alex Banks and St. Mary’s International’s Jeff Koo.
But as the man says, to be the best, you have to beat the best. That’s what they did. And Zama totes yet another D-II banner home (more on that in another blog post).
Is there any reason why there was so much debate that interrupted one bout in the dual-meet championship and delayed a final verdict in the 108-pound gold-medal freestyle bout?
No question, the intent is to get it right, ensure that decisions are awarded properly, and the officials association headed by Takashi Noda did its best to review and conference with each other, then patiently explain their decisions to the coaches.
Clearly, nobody was happy with the delays. It took a video review (not permitted in the manuals that govern DODDS Pacific Far East competitions?) and 13 minutes of discussion before Kubasaki’s Daniel Mora was given a decision that dethroned defending Far East champion Justin Duenas of Kadena at 108 pounds. Naturally, each side claimed their wrestler should have won. But the debate went on far longer than necessary.
So, too, did it the next day, when Kinnick’s Brady Yoder appeared to have scored a decision at 122 over Kubasaki’s Josh Gabri, but after a full 27 minutes (!!!) of haggling, the call was reversed and Yoder given credit for a pinfall victory. Kubasaki’s coaching staff blew a gasket, with Geist suggesting that there should have been a video review to determine the winner of that bout.
The point being, such delays harm the momentum and rhythm of a tournament final. Sort of how the Super Bowl turned on a dime with San Francisco rallying against Baltimore after the 34-minute Superdome brownout. That was an act of nature. Debating wrestling outcomes for that long is well within human control. Wrestlers need to keep warmed up, else one might pull a hamstring or a groin or other injury otherwise preventable by zipping it and letting the action continue on the mat. That’s coaches and referees, each.
If there was another reason for coaches and wrestlers to feel a bit grumpy last week, it was the timing of the tournament itself. For the first time in … well, I can’t remember now … the Far East wrestling tournament was held the same week as the Far East basketball tournaments. The idea, according to Far East Athletics Council membership, was that teachers would prefer to have classes disrupted just one week instead of two.
As I’ve said many times in this space, academics come first; I get that, despite the carpings of my detractors. Student comes before athlete for a reason.
But according to that same panel, the tournament was also moved down to Far East basketball week to create another week in the regular season. Wrestlers need that extra week for preparation, we were all told.
So, where was the competition the week before Far East wrestling? Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools regular-season dual meets wrapped up on Feb. 5. The end-of-season tournament was on Feb. 9 at Yokota. Nothing was scheduled the week of Feb. 10-16. Same in DODDS Korea. Same on Okinawa.
All the extra added week did was create seven more days that wrestlers had to hold their weight, for no tangible reason.
I don’t think anybody was unhappy with losing a day of the tournament, as DODDS Pacific mandated cutbacks from four days to three for the wrestling tournament. We were in the gym a bit longer, but not much. There were two teams fewer than last year, and only a handful of teams brought full lineups.
But to a man, every coach and every wrestler I spoke with said they’d rather have the tournament moved back where it was, the week before basketball.
(DISCLAIMER: Selfishly, I’d prefer that, too; it is awfully hard to cover four basketball tournaments and a wrestling tournament all at one time. But if they stick with the current format, that’s how I’ll roll).
If this is it for Brian Kitts, as he has said privately, Yokota and the Kanto Plain lose one of their coaching elders and one of the leading advocates for retaining international freestyle as the preferred method of Far East wrestling. He never got that Far East team title as a head coach, but he’s kept competitive a program that former coach Mark Hanssen picked up off the scrap heap in the late 1990s and turned it into a power.
The name is Vasconcellos. Ryan Vasconcellos. Gold medalist. 122-pound. St. Mary’s. Learn it well. The man served notice to the entire Far East wrestling community that he could, one day, become the school's first four-time Far East tournament gold medalist. And the first ever to do it without ever losing a high-school bout.
The only four-time champions hail from Kubasaki, Scott Wood (2009) and Justin L. Miller (1999). Wood’s achievement came in the penultimate year that international schools were excluded from Far East tournaments, else we might have seen a couple more. Miller lost just one bout in his four high school years, to Mike Gamboa of Kinnick at 135 pounds in the 1996 dual-meet finals, at Yokosuka’s Old Thew Gym.
If bloodlines mean anything, Ryan’s father, Robert, was a Far East gold medalist the year St. Mary’s and Zama shared the team title, back when Far East was just a two-day true individual-freestyle double-elimination tournament.
Ryan spends his weekends working out against adult wrestlers in a club outside of school. The more he gets thrown around the room against those guys on Sundays, the better Ryan’s repertoire will become and the better he’ll be on Wednesdays and Saturdays. And the more his name will show up in this space.