Today’s “Behind the Mic” is a guest post from our very own Jim Best! Jim was born and raised in the Lehigh Valley. As a product of the District XI wrestling community, Jim wrestled at Parkland High School from 1980 to 1984, and then went on to wrestling for North Carolina State University. After graduating from college, Jim began a teaching and coaching career in the Parkland School District. At the high school level, Jim was an assistant coach at Parkland for eight years, and he held the head coaching position from 2000-2003. In 2004, Jim began his commentating career as a high school wrestling analyst fro RCN Sports. In addition to his position with RCN, Jim currently serves as principal at Macungie Elementary School and resides in Allentown with his wife, Katie.
Hello Behind the Mic readers! My name is Jim Best and I’m honored to have been asked to fill in this week for a vacationing Gary Laubach. As an experienced wrestler and former coach, I’m excited for this opportunity to share my recent experiences at the 2013 Division 1 Wrestling Championship in Des Moines with you. I’ve worked as an RCN TV High School Wrestling Analyst for the past eight years. Growing up in the Lehigh Valley, I was a two-time State Wrestling Finisher at Parkland High School. I then went on to North Carolina State University where I continued my wrestling career by placing second and third in the ACC Championship Tournament, in addition to competing in the NCAA Championship Tournament in Iowa City, Iowa. After graduation, I returned to the Lehigh Valley where I soon became involved in coaching. I served as the Assistant High School Wrestling Coach at Parkland High School from 1994 to 2000, transitioning into the Head Coach position until 2003. In 2003, I resigned from “full-time” coaching to move into school administration. I am currently employed as the Principal at Macungie Elementary School in the East Penn School District.
Back in March, I had the opportunity to attend the 2013 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in Des Moines, Iowa. When Gary asked me to fill in for him, I immediately felt this would be a perfect topic to share with you Behind the Mic readers.
The 2013 Division 1 Wrestling Championships – History in the Making!
Des Moines, Iowa .. .probably not on the top 10 list of “places to visit for spectacular scenery”, but if you are a passionate wrestling fan, like myself, Des Moines was the place to be during the second last weekend of March for some of the most spectacular wrestling scenery you will ever see! My trip began with a fight out of Lehigh Valley International Airport (or ABE, as it is still referred to on Expedia) on the evening of Wednesday, March 20th. Later that evening, as I boarded a connecting flight from Atlanta to Des Moines, I was amazed (as I always am when I travel by plane to the tournament) how many wrestling fans had come “out of the woodwork” to converge on the NCAA Championship tournament. Most of the passengers on the plane were wearing some type of wrestling clothing (tee-shirts, hats, sweatpants, etc.) that displayed their team of choice, and/or they displayed the wrestler’s “badge of honor”, which consists of one or a pair of cauliflower ears. Put it this way, if a person on that flight wasn’t a wrestling fan, they were probably thinking “what the heck have I gotten myself into?” In any event, it was a fun trip, with interesting conversation and, by 10:00 that evening, I was in Des Moines.
The opening morning of the tournament (Thursday) is filled with intense excitement and anticipation from both fans and athletes, but the morning also presented some challenges. The tournament was held in downtown Des Moines at the Wells Fargo Arena. Des Moines is not a large city and it doesn’t have an extensive public transportation system. Of the 18,000 or so people attending the tournament, about 9,000 of those people had driven to downtown Des Moines on Thursday morning and were scrambling for a parking spot. Most of these folks are ex-wrestlers who are known to have a bit of a temper! Lucky for me, my wife accompanied me out to Des Moines (although she had no interest in attending the tournament), so I had drop-off and pick-up service, throughout the entire three day span of the tournament, at the front door of the arena. From where she dropped me off, it was a short walk to the media entrance, and from there I picked up media credentials and found “my spot” on media row (all media folks receive an assigned seat, with the exception of mat side photographers, who have as assigned area beside each mat, and you must sit in your assigned seat or risk losing your credentials). Fortunately for me, my seat was directly in front of Mat 2, and I had a clear view of all other mats (to start the tournament, there are eight mats running at one time). By 11:00am that morning, wrestling had started and I was in wrestling “bliss”.
Keep in mind, this is a tournament that all of the wrestlers qualify for. Every wrestler in this tournament comes with a great deal of wrestling experience and savvy under their wrestling belts. I would venture to say, based on my experience as a wrestler in the championship tournament (many moons ago) and a former coach, that most of the young men in this tournament have dedicated a better part of their youth to compete at this level. Every match that unfolds in the tournament has the potential to be “the best match of the tournament”, regardless of tournament seeds or prior accomplishments – all of the wrestlers are that good! In addition, the wrestlers have to weigh-in, at or below a designated weight, every day of the tournament. Of the 330 wrestlers that qualified for the tournament, all but a few of the 285 pounders (who cannot weigh-in at more than 285 pounds) walk around with only 5 or 6 percent body fat…these guys are also fit!
The Tournament Unfolds…
If you are reading this blog, and you are a passionate fan of wrestling, you know that I can write for days and days to describe all of the awesome wrestling action that I witnessed over the 72 hour period during which the tournament took place…but I won’t do that because you were either at the tournament or watched the ESPN coverage! If you are reading the blog and you don’t follow wrestling, I will sum it up as best I can without losing your attention and interest.
Of course, I kept my eyes on the local boys-Randy Cruz (Bethlehem Catholic/Lehigh, 133lbs.), Devon Lotitio (Liberty/Cal Poly, 133lbs.), Jordan Oliver (Easton/Oklahoma State, 149lbs.), Mike Ottinger (Parkland/Central Michigan, 165lbs.), Jimmy Sheptock (Northampton/Maryland, 184lbs), Brandon Palik (Saucon Valley/Drexel, 197lbs.), and Justin Grant (Easton/Bloomsburg. 285lbs). These were all wrestlers that I watched compete just a few years ago at local high school dual meets and tournaments that the RCN team covered. So, of course, I had a special interest in how they fared. As we know now, Jordan Oliver prevailed to win his second NCAA title, and in dominant fashion! Jimmy Sheptock also had a very good performance, as he picked up All-American honors, as only a sophomore, with a sixth place finish in his weight class. Cruz, Lotito, Ottinger, Palik and Grant all had great performances, but each one suffered heartbreaking losses that would bring their season to a pre-mature close before accomplishing the goal of All-American status (the top eight place finishers in each weight class earn All-American honors). At the end of the day, win or lose in this tournament, they will never forget the experience.
The “main story” of the tournament was the action unfolding in the 165 pound weight class. Two wrestlers were predicted to advance to the final round to wrestle in a match that some wrestling fans are calling the “best match ever.” Kyle Dake, a senior from Cornell who had already won three consecutive championships at three different weight classes (141lbs, 149lbs., and 157lbs.) would square off against David Taylor, from Penn State. Taylor was the defending champion at the weight class and the winner of the Hodge Trophy (college wrestling’s equivalent to the Heisman Trophy) in 2012. Both wrestlers advanced through the tournament to the final round, and Dake prevailed over Taylor in a super-exciting 5-4 match to win his fourth NCAA title. Dake became only the third wrestler in the history of the tournament to win four titles (Pat Smith from Oklahoma State and Cael Sanderson from Iowa State were the previous two wrestlers to accomplish the feat), and he is the only wrestler to win his titles in four different weight classes. Penn State, coached by Cael Sanderson, won their third consecutive team title with five finalists and two champions. As I walked out of the arena at about 11:00pm on Saturday evening, at the conclusion of the final round, I reflected on my experience at the tournament and thought “Man, I am one lucky guy to have seen this unfold.”
As I have described to some of my non-wrestling friends and colleagues, attending that tournament is the equivalent to a football fan attending the Superbowl, or a college basketball fan attending the Final Four – it just doesn’t get any better in terms of action and atmosphere. For three days in March, approximately 18,000 diehard wrestling fans converge at the site of the championships to watch the best college wrestlers in the country compete against each other, and then, in between the rounds of wrestling, we meet at the local eating establishments to discuss and relive the most exciting moments over a burger and some cold beverages. .. it truly is a “live, eat and breath” wrestling experience! Next year, the championships are in Oklahoma City…time to get on the Expedia website and arrange a flight out of “ABE”!