Guest commentary: Will 4A move to the divisional qualifying system?

Published: Thursday, Feb. 13 2014 12:50 p.m. MST

at the Utah High School All-Star Wrestling meet at Utah Valley University Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, in Orem.  
 (Tom Smart, Deseret News) at the Utah High School All-Star Wrestling meet at Utah Valley University Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, in Orem. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

While growing up watching "Sesame Street," I remember a song and game, "One thing is not like the other." The challenge for the young child was to identify which one of the four boxes was different.

In the case of Utah prep wrestling, the 4A classification is the outlier. The other classifications have some sort of divisional qualifying system. Meanwhile, 4A still uses the region format.

Since most prep sports are familiar with regions, a quick explanation of the divisional qualifying system is in order.

Basically, it divides each classification into two divisions. From each division, eight qualifiers move on to the state tournament. The only exception among the classifications that use divisions is 1A, where four wrestlers advance to form an eight-wrestler bracket.

Though regions have been around since prep wrestling or prep anything existed, the idea of the divisional qualifying tournament has taken hold and is supported by the vast majority of wrestling coaches, even in the 4A ranks.

The genesis of the idea dates back to the late 1980s when Viewmont head coach Bart Thompson brought up the idea at the annual Utah Wrestling Coaches Association fall meeting. The coaches back then seemed puzzled by the idea and the concept was basically tabled for nearly two decades from serious thought, let alone application. Interestingly enough, Thompson is now an associate director with the UHSAA and will direct the state wrestling tournaments starting today.

But the concept was rejuvenated by the coaches, with Layton head coach John Fager leading the charge. Then a few years back it was the 4A classification that took the first leap, though the implementation of divisionals and keeping region tournaments made for a convoluted system that frustrated many. So as the adage goes, the baby was thrown out with the bath water and 4A went back to regions as the mode to qualify wrestlers for the state tournament.

However, during this time the other classifications moved forward, each dealing with some specific issues in their own way.

For example, 5A sees no need for region tournaments as the region champion is solely decided by dual meet competition. The 2A has a state dual tournament in early January in which every 2A school competes, thus making region tournaments obsolete in their view. And 3A has taken a peculiar path with two of the regions still having region tournaments a week before the divisional tournament while the other two forgo that and use the divisional standings to decide the region trophy.

Despite what format is used, the divisional qualifying system provides some great benefits to the competition.

First and foremost, it deals with the inequities that often exist between the quality of regions. By either combining two regions, as they do in 3A, or by splitting the teams based on a formula that takes into account the previous year's state performance, this combining brings forth the most deserving 16 best wrestlers. In 4A this year, many wrestlers that beat other wrestlers will not compete simply because they placed fifth or lower in a stronger region.

Further, the wrestlers will be seeded in a more uniform way for the state tournament. With regions, the two best wrestlers often meet in the semifinal round instead of the championship round. With divisionals, this problem is alleviated. If the two best wrestlers happen to be in the same division, they will be separated in the state bracket. Of course if they are from different divisions, the champions of each will be separated. But with four regions, the two best wrestlers might be placed on the same side of the bracket. Also, throughout the bracket, one will find better wrestlers meeting earlier in the tournament than if a divisional qualifier was used.

What this will lead to is that the most deserving wrestlers make it to the tournament, place in the tournament and meet in the championship finals. This will give the team competition its best integrity. Also, in regards to the team race, the amount of qualifiers a team brings to the state tournament can be quite skewed in comparison to how the teams have fared in other competitions throughout the season. For example, Maple Mountain from Region 8, which placed second at the Rockwell Rumble, brings 13 wrestlers to the state tournament while Mountain View from Region 7, which finished 25th in the same competition, takes advantage of a weaker league and brings 19.

However, one main concern that others and I have with the current system in 4A is what divisionals are doing to the weaker programs that are stuck in the most competitive regions. For example, Bonneville and Ogden didn't qualify a single wrestler for the state tournament.

Both the Lakers and Tigers compete in Region 5, which along with Region 8, are the toughest leagues in 4A wrestling. Sky View, another team from Region 5, will bring just four wrestlers to the big tournament. The same situation exists with some of the programs in Region 8 such as Provo, Springville and Timpview, which qualified three, three and two wrestlers respectively.

This is especially frustrating for some of these programs that have beaten on a regular basis teams from Regions 6 and 7 in dual meets and tournament competition. For example, Provo beat Region 7 runner-up Skyline in a dual meet but the Eagles will take seven wrestlers to the state tournament while Provo brings just three.

The main argument against divisionals coming from Regions 6 and 7 is that they worry about what using this system might do to their programs in qualifying wrestlers to the state tournament. Their general worry is that the number of qualifiers in their programs will be reduced when their teams are put in a division with stronger programs.

During the fall, each 4A region had an administrative representative vote on the matter and the vote came out 2-2 and the status quo of using regions was maintained. This despite an overwhelming vote from the coaches at the state tournament last year to move to divisionals.

While every coach from Region 5 and Region 8 supports divisionals, some coaches from Region 6 and Region 7 also support the concept. In fact, Mountain View head coach Chad Blevins, though his program has taken full advantage of the inequities in region strength, supports the divisional qualifying concept and will actually present this year's proposal to the 4A coaches at the state tournament.

"The divisional is the best way to ensure the best 16 wrestlers go to the state tournament. It is also the best way to ensure that the two best wrestlers meet in the state finals and the best way to ensure that the best six wrestlers place at state," Blevins said. "It is the most equitable thing to do."

Blevins, who also proposed the divisional concept last year, will again have to collect data and show forces in the UHSAA that the majority of 4A coaches are in favor. Then the plan will go forward in the bureaucracy of the UHSAA requiring a final vote from an administrator from each of the 4A regions. Proponents of the divisional concept are hoping that things can change for next year.

Blevins' specific proposal will be similar to that used in 5A while the 4A schools are divided into two divisions based on performance in the state tournament. The points of graduating seniors will be tossed out and then all the 4A programs will be ranked one through 28 and then divided into two divisions. Two central locations will need to be located to host the divisionals. Currently, Alta and Jordan host the 5A tournaments while the Sevier Event Center in Richfield hosted the 3A Southern Divisional and both 2A Divisionals.

Brian Preece is a freelance prep sports writer and was the head wrestling coach at Provo High School from 1994 to 2006. In full disclosure, he has written in various forums his support for the divisional qualifying concept.

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