Friday, September 12, 2014

Wrestling: Like it or not, get used to Group 5

If it isn't broke don't fix it.

Apparently those are seven words that the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association is not familiar with. As expected, the executive committee on Wednesday voted -- by a wide margin of 26-6 -- to approve the first reading of a proposal to expand the team wrestling championships.

Expansion will make five groups in the public section to go along with the two in non-public. It also creates four more sectional tournaments. The proposal will again go before the committee for a final vote on Oct. 10, and if passed, a mere formality really, it will go into effect for the 2014-15 season.

Additionally, the site of the group semifinals and finals, which have been contested at Toms River North High School since 2005, will shift back to its previous home at Sun National Bank Center in Trenton. The release of all classifications is expected to come in November.

The expansion proposal reached the executive committee by passing among the conferences by a 10-5 vote. The Skyland Conference was in favor by a 12-6 count, while the Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference voted against it, 16-10.

High Point athletic director Todd Van Orden was among those opposed to expansion. Like many, he believes expansion only waters down the competition.

"I don't think we need to go to five groups," said Van Orden, who attended Wednesday's meeting in Robbinsville. "It was running pretty well the way it was."

High Point wrestling coach John Gardner, whose teams captured the last two Group 2 titles, also is not in favor of expansion. Van Orden believes that the Wildcats will move to Group 3 for the upcoming season if expansion passes next month.

Most of the coaches in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area seem to be against five groups, with the exception of Delaware Valley coach Andy Fitz, who went on record here over the summer as being in favor of it since it gives more wrestlers an opportunity to win a championship.

Listen to the money talk

NJSIAA executive director Steve Timko has talked a good game when it comes to expansion in wrestling. He was quoted in the Asbury Park Press on Wednesday as saying: "I think this [move to the Sun National Bank Center] provided the best alternative to make everybody happy, quite frankly. We've been there before. The parking is good. We've held other events there."

That's true. As fans and the wrestling community will remember, this venue, formerly Sovereign Bank Arena, was the previous home of the group championships. That building, which was deemed too large (with seating for 8,600 compared to 3,100 at Toms River North) and too expensive, is now the "best alternative." With the need for six to eight mats, Toms River was out because it can only get four down without sacrificing seating. And going two days or using two gyms there was an insane idea, yet one that was considered, according to Timko.

Money forced this best alternative. More teams means more entrance fees. And I hope you enjoyed that free parking at Toms River because there will be a charge to park at Sun National Bank Center. Just how much is a mystery at this point, though the NJSIAA says it hopes to make up the additional cost of $1,150 of having an additional group with the parking in Trenton.

Makes you want to hide your wallet.

This proposal is all about money and not what's best for the sport. Book it.

Why else would the state abandoned a good thing at Toms River, where we saw two of the greatest group finals -- 2 and 4 -- in recent memory last February. The Pine Belt Arena is a great venue where the fans are right on top of the action.

Trenton, if my memory serves, was like wrestling in a huge cavern and there was little juice in the building.

Group 5 across the board?

Van Orden believes that it's only a matter of time before we have a Group 5 in all sports, as wrestling would join football on this front. Football has been the perfect example of how things get diluted with expansion.

Just a few years ago, Warren Hills reached a sectional final, despite being under .500 and having beaten no team with a winning record to get to the title game.

"It's nice that you want to honor kids and teams [with trophies], but you also don't want to water it down," Van Orden said. "I remember in college, guys had state championship jackets and they use to say, 'You must be from New Jersey.'"

Yes, Jersey, where we crown 24 "state champs" in football.

And wrestling moves further away from the possibility of a Tournament of Champions. Now that would be a real money maker.

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