A few things have become clear as the Pacific’s high school wrestling season hits the first checkpoint, the two-week Christmas holiday break:
-- Kubasaki and Nile C. Kinnick, the teams that finished 1-2 in the Far East Division I Tournament last February at Yokosuka Naval Base, appear primed to hold those top two spots at this year’s Far East, Feb. 13-15 at Yokota High School.
-- Bouts on average are far shorter, given the new rule changes to international-freestyle wrestling implemented in June by the sport’s governing body, FILA. Cumulative scoring replacing period scoring and reducing the points lead needed for a technical fall to seven are two of the major reasons. On average, bouts are ending at just over 1 minute. And there have been far more techs than pins thus far.
-- Gauging how each of the districts’ top wrestlers compare, always a tough guessing game even with inter-area events, will be even tougher now that the “Beast of the East” and “Rumble on the Rock” in-season invitational tournaments have been taken off the table.
-- That said, the 148-pound weight class stands to be the toughest of them all at Far East, if one bout staged Wednesday was any indicator.
Kinnick features a strong complement of wrestlers who competed against and lost by razor-thin margins to Kubasaki last February in both the individual and dual-meet tournaments. So, too, does Kubasaki possess a wealth of talent and experience that helped the Dragons edge the Red Devils 78-77 in the individual team standings and 32-26 in the dual-meet final.
Particularly from 148 pounds up, the Dragons field what some observers are calling the most loaded upper portion of a lineup in Far East history: reigning 148-pound gold-medalist Austin Cyr, Virginia transfer Tanner Stamper (158) and veterans Sho Green (168), Tyshon Butler (180), Josiah Allen (215) and Christian Fernandez at heavyweight. The lower weights can make some noise as well, what with reigning champion Daniel Mora at 115. This after Kubasaki extended its Pacific record for Far East team banners in any sport to 23.
Sidebar to this: Don’t read too much into Kubasaki’s 53-6 rout of Kadena on Wednesday. The Panthers did not have starters Tasi Duenas (101), James Alexander (158) and former Far East gold-medalist Justin Duenas at 115, among others.
From top to bottom, the Red Devils also have a bit of everything – mostly Far East silver medalists hungry to take that last step to gold, including Dustin Wilson (168), Charlie Gann (158) and Ian O’Brien (215). Nate Abrenilla is solid at 115, as is Brady Yoder at 135. In seven dual meets, the Red Devils remain unbeaten, most of the time by comfortable margins.
While they’re team lineups are solid, Kubasaki and Kinnick also must take heed of individual talents on the not-so-stacked teams who will still take valuable points.
There are the aforementioned Duenases and Alexander. St. Mary’s International brings back two reigning champions, Jeffrey Koo at 180 and Ryan Vasconcellos, a second-generation gold medalist who’s at 135 pounds. Mora and Duenas could find St. Mary’s Kentaro Hayashi a formidable roadblock at 115. Eric Overton, another returning champion, could make it a repeat at 129 for Christian Academy Japan.
The middle of the lineup for Robert D. Edgren can’t be ignored, either. Hunter Matthews at 129, Kaleb Atchison at 141 and, further up the line, Brandon Gleason at 215, could challenge for gold. Sky Phillips has also looked solid at 135. The question for Edgren, as always, is getting enough competition to prepare for Far East; same goes for Matthew C. Perry and E.J. King to the southwest.
Even Zama American, Daegu High, Humphreys High and Seoul American in Korea are likely to deny a handful of points to the Red Devils and Dragons. Jake Scott of Zama looks strong so far at 148, as does Morgan Baek of Daegu, whom Seoul American assistant coach Julian Harden calls the best wrestler on the Warriors team. Jack Barnes of Seoul American possesses potential at 215, Harden says, as does Sam Kim of Osan at 122. Humphreys is but a start-up, but Austin Rudd has won six times at 180 thus far.
Given the names and pedigree in that weight class, 148 could be an all-out wrestling version of a battle come February at Yokota’s Capps Gym.
Key example was what occurred on Wednesday at Kadena’s Panther Pit. The Panthers’ Elijah Takushi seized an early 6-0 lead on Cyr, and one of those typically fast and quick technical falls seemed to a foregone conclusion.
But Cyr rewrote that script and gradually chipped away at Takushi’s lead. Finally, with partisans on both sides screaming themselves hoarse, Cyr scored a two-point tilt on Takushi, then holding on in the final few seconds for a thrilling 17-16 decision. Imagine what it will be like when names like Baek and Scott are thrown into that mix.
That said, it’s not taking very long for many a bout to get finished, especially when we’re talking a veteran against a novice. From just after the Athens Olympics in 2005 when period scoring was introduced, a wrestler could lose the first period and have a fighting chance of rallying in the last two.
Not any more. With takedowns now worth two points instead of one, a winner has even less work to do. In Wednesday’s Kubasaki-Kadena dual, six of 13 bouts ended on technical falls in the first period, and only one of the vanquished scored even a point. Takedown and three tilts, be they by leg lace, crotch lift or gut wrench. That’s all it takes.
It will be interesting to see how the wrestlers will be seeded at the upcoming Far East in February. Far Easts last year were shortened to three days, instead of four as they had been. Pool-play wrestling is out. Strictly an elimination tournament, followed by the dual-meet tournament.
Seeding wrestlers for elimination bouts by win-loss record could be tricky, because the level of experience and talent in each district varies widely, Okinawa and Kanto loaded with veterans, while the majority in Japan’s outlying schools and in Korea are new to the sport. And though the new FILA rules bring wrestling somewhat more in line with U.S. collegiate folkstyle, any Guam schools in attendance will be wrestling out of season (theirs ends Saturday), and freestyle is what it is.
Seeding by keeping common opponents apart might not work, either; depending on who gets seeded where, one pool could field a relatively inexperienced group while the other would resemble a World Cup pool-play “group of death.”
Regardless, it will be a difficult task without the luxury of having a “Beast” or a “Rumble” where these wrestlers might meet each other and give organizers a better gauge of who is truly better than whom.