The PIAA board of directors drew a line in the sand recently when it made official its proposal to reduce the number of weight classes in high school wrestling.
As Chris Haines sees it, that line is more like a massive trench that could swallow the entire sport.
The Gettysburg head coach rarely minces words, preferring to be brutally honest when assessing himself, his team or the sport that is his passion. Naturally, he opened up with both barrels when sharing his opinion of the PIAA’s recent proposal.
“This is horrible,” said Haines. “Every other sport in PA is adding divisions, allowing more teams in the postseason – add, add, add. This is taking away opportunities from kids and masking it by saying forfeits are killing dual meets in the regular season. Without a doubt there are teams who can’t field (full) lineups, but there are plenty who not only field teams but are two and three deep at weight classes.”
The PIAA’s pitch is centered around trimming the number of weight classes from 14 to 12, with the intent to reduce the increasing number of forfeits seen over the last few seasons. The state’s scholastic athletic governing body passed a provision to petition the National Federation of State High School Associations if it does not reduce classes for the 2020-21 academic year. The PIAA would then request to run a pilot program with the reduced classes in place.
No formal decision or vote is expected to be taken until next April.
Under the PIAA’s proposal, the weight classes would be as follows: 110, 118, 125, 132, 138, 145, 152, 160, 170, 190, 215 and 285.
Currently the PIAA uses the following 14-class model: 106, 113, 120, 126, 132, 138, 145, 152, 160, 170, 182, 195, 220 and 285.
Of the proposed 12 weights, the one drawing the most attention (fire) is the opener. You don’t need a pile of statistical data to see that 106 is most problematic when it comes to forfeits, particularly in Class 2A. Haines believes raising the minimum weight will wipe out chances for undersized freshmen and sophomores who have a home at 106 until they develop physically and move up in weight.
“By bumping (106) up you’re hurting a lot of ninth graders that don’t have the benefit of wrestling at the middle school level,” he said. “Now, they’re going to be too small at the high school level because some kids are going to be coming down from 120.”
Getting a handle on rising forfeits is tricky business. Everyone would like to see dual meets decided on the mat and not by which team can send more bodies to the center circle than its opponent. Programs struggling with depth may benefit from the reduced number of weights.
However, what about healthy programs that have depth to spare? This measure would essentially erase the opportunity for two wrestlers to be in the starting lineup – for every team in the state. Considering that nearly 500 Pennsylvania high schools had varsity wrestling programs last year, you are theoretically closing the door on a thousand kids.
Therein lies the main point of contention for Haines.
“This is a decision that makes no sense whatsoever in regard to kids participating in the sport,” said Haines. “In no other sport is this happening. They’re attacking it as a whole to try and fix a problem that only affects small groups. It’s not right for our kids.”
Adding to the frustration for Haines is that head coaches were not included in formal discussions or asked to provide input prior to the PIAA’s decision.
Another point of contention is that wrestling continues to be strapped to an operating table where it is then poked, prodded and pulled apart on an annual basis. Seemingly no other sport has gone through such Frankenstein-like transformations that include changes in weights, weigh-ins, postseason qualifications, uniforms and rules that directly affect the competition itself.
Considering that Pennsylvania continues to produce the most NCAA Division 1 wrestling All-Americans year in and year out, I can’t envision the slashing and stitching that would take place if the sport was actually struggling.
Josh Martin is the Times Sports Editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter at @JoshMartin33