The state tournament is the goal for every high school wrestler in Minnesota. Getting to Xcel Energy Center, however, often entails a couple of trips to southeastern Minnesota, which isn’t always perceived by some around the state as a hotbed of the sport.
Rochester, though, is where championship wrestlers are forged, where two regular-season tournaments attract top-caliber competition from Minnesota and around the nation, where dreams of state titles move closer to reality.
Forest Lake High School coach Billy Pierce, a former Big Ten champion and three-time All-American at the University of Minnesota, summed up what Rochester means to the sport when he called it “Minnesota’s wrestling mecca.”
The mecca is the Regional Sports Center at Rochester Community and Technical College (pictured). With room for eight wrestling mats surrounded by spectator seating, the Regional Sports Center hosts the Minnesota Christmas tournament every December and The Clash national duals tournament in late December or early January. The Christmas tournament attracts 36 teams from Minnesota and the upper Midwest, while the 32-team Clash has more of a national allure with some of the top teams in the nation coming to Rochester.
“When I walk in here, it kind of has the feel of the Big Ten tournament and events like that,” Pierce said during the 2011 Clash.
The people behind the scenes are from the Southeastern Minnesota Wrestling Coalition, a non-profit organization that was created to promote and support wrestling in that part of the state. Some of the founders of the coalition also were in on the ground floor of The Clash, which will mark its 10th anniversary on Dec. 30-31, 2011.
Steve Patton, Clash chairman and president of the Southeastern Minnesota Wresting Coalition, said, “The Clash started with a bunch of guys sitting around saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to get teams together from three or four states and see how we’d do?’ We started originally thinking Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.”
But The Clash grew quickly as teams from around the country expressed interest in competing. At the first Clash in 2003, teams from California, Utah, Oklahoma and Nebraska joined teams from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. In the years since, teams have come from as far away as Hawaii, Florida and Rhode Island to compete in Rochester.
“We had 20 teams the first year, and then there was so much interest that we settled on a 32-team format,” Patton said. “It’s quite an event.”
Amateur Wrestling News ranks The Clash as the number one high school dual wrestling tournament in the nation. The 2011 Clash featured 11 teams ranked among the top 38 in the country.
The Minnesota Christmas tournament is different from The Clash in two ways: The Christmas tournament attracts more of a regional field and it is an individual competition instead of team duals. Wrestlers from 34 teams competed in the 2011 Christmas tournament, which was the 24th year of the event.
Unlike the state tourney, wrestlers at the Christmas tournament are not split into classes. That means the best individuals from schools large and small go head to head in proving who the best wrestlers are in each weight class. It’s often said that the Christmas tournament is the toughest individual tourney in Minnesota, including the state tournament.
“We get in these tournaments because it’s about the best competition you can get,” Albert Lea coach Larry Goodnature said. “And my philosophy in coaching is I want our kids to wrestle with the best competition I can possibly find, which makes them better in the long run. These two tournaments are better than the state tournament, so when my kids wrestle in these two tournaments and then they get to the state tournament, they’ve already experienced tougher tournaments and maybe it’s not such a big deal to go to state as far as being scared or intimidated.”
The Clash and the Christmas tournament are both invitation-only events, and teams are often knocking on the door.
Forest Lake made its first trip to The Clash this season, and Pierce (right) said, “One of my goals at Forest Lake was to get into this tournament. They do a great job of recruiting and they get the top teams nationally. We feel very fortunate and privileged to be here.”
For some teams outside southeastern Minnesota, competing in Rochester has become as big a part of their schedule as wrestling in their own gym.
“We call it our home away from home because we wrestle more matches in this building than anywhere else,” said Simley coach Will Short. “Our kids will wrestle 13 matches for sure (in Rochester) and we probably wrestle 10 in our own gym. So this is our home away from home.”
Because of restrictions on out-of-state travel by Minnesota teams, the opportunity to drive to Rochester and wrestle against some of the top teams and individuals from around the nation makes The Clash and Christmas tournament even more important.
“Absolutely,” Short said. “The only way to get national exposure for our teams is to have people come to us. It’s worked out for us to be part of the Christmas tournament and The Clash for years, and we keep coming back because it’s great competition and it prepares our kids for the end of the year.”
In addition to helping with The Clash and the Christmas tournament, the Southeastern Minnesota Wrestling Coalition supports wrestling in all areas of southeastern Minnesota, otherwise known as Section 1. The coalition has a representative from every high school or wrestling community in southeastern Minnesota.
“We ask their input on what we should do, how to invest our resources, what can we do better,” Patton said.
The Southeastern Minnesota Wrestling Coalition helps purchase wrestling mats and other equipment for schools and wrestling organizations, sponsors a Section 1 senior recognition dinner and Hall of Fame dinner, and contributes to college scholarship funds for wrestlers.
“The list of things we have our fingers on is pretty neat,” Patton said.
One of the philosophies for both tournaments in Rochester is simple: the organizers want everybody to say “Wow!” when the events conclude.
“We try to make it a great event for wrestlers, coaches, parents and fans,” Patton said. “And we get a lot of positive feedback. We get probably 100 emails after every tournament, from people saying they can’t believe it, what a great experience. Everybody knows it’s something we do well here in Rochester. It’s kind of our niche.”