By Ryan Divish
BILLINGS - Let's be real honest here. With the exception of the Montana-Montana State football game, there is no other sporting spectacle in Montana sports quite like the All-Class State Wrestling Tournament that will take place here at Metra Park today.
It really is indescribable. Not that words like intensity, passion, enthusiasm and excitement don't suffice, but they don't quite do it justice. Really, no matter how much I write about the fervor in each match, the glory in each win and the heartache in each loss, it still doesn't come close to what it's like to be there in person.
Last year was the first time either George or I experienced the chaos, monotony and bedlam that comes with 12 wrestling mats, hundreds of eager competitors and thousands of crazy fans.
We were overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the tournament, the nonstop competition and the confusion over trying to find which local wrestler was competing where and when.
But as amazing as that first day was, it was nothing compared to Saturday. The second day of the tournament features the semifinal and championship matches. Imagine taking all that energy, emotion, intensity and excitement from Friday and multiplying it by 1,000 and you have championship day.
The semifinal matches are very intense because there are four wrestlers, usually from four different schools, vying for a chance at Saturday night's dream of competing for a state title. Fans don't just cheer, they go insane. You can hear how each match is going from whichever section of the crowd is cheering at the moment.
But the best part of Saturday is later at night when the wrestlers who will compete in the finals parade out in front of a packed Metra and circle the mats, warming up. The roar when those 84 wrestlers run out from underneath the stands into a barrage of flashbulbs and screams brings goose bumps to people's arms, and stands the hair straight up on the backs of their necks.
That's what I look for in my championship sporting events. That surge of adrenaline that leaves you shivering the same as when you heard Al Michaels scream, "Do you believe in miracles!" when the U.S. Hockey team beat the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics.
At the state wrestling tournament, you are overcome by goosebumps, shivers and adrenaline. Hell, you don't have to be watching someone you know competing. It's the feelings of triumph and glory that send chills down your spine.
Maybe that's the best part of state wrestling: You don't have to be cheering any particular wrestler to understand the sheer magnitude of it all. It just grabs you like a headlock and holds you there until you submit to it.
Unfortunately, it's that atmosphere that is somewhat lacking a little in other sports' championship events, particularly the big three of football, basketball and volleyball.
Look, I'm not disparaging the current status. Since I never won a state title of any sort in high school, I don't know how great it is. But I've had friends who have and when they talk about it, I can't help but get jealous. I'm sure the current system is fine. I doubt there have been many athletes who win a state title in any sport and say, "Wow, that was really boring."
But my proposed changes to certain championship events aren't only from the athletes' standpoint, but from a fan's and a journalist's perspective. As much as the sport is about the athlete, it is we the fans who yearn to be along for that emotional ride.
So, if I ever become prime minister, grand pooh-bah, chairman or whatever they call the head position of the Montana High School Athletic Association, this is what I would propose:
In boys and girls basketball, I want only one Montana state champion.
Excuse me? You heard me: One Montana state champ. Now, before people start preparing nooses to hang me in effigy, listen closely. I don't want to scrap the current system, I only want to add to it.
In the old, old days, Montana high school basketball teams competed in the Big 32, which was basically an all-class state tournament, meaning that a big school in Missoula could play a smaller school like Wolf Point. It was kind of like the movie "Hoosiers," where everybody plays everybody.
But I don't want that. Nope, I want the four state tournaments to go on as always with one exception - that Class C might need a 16-team state tourney with the growing number of Class C schools. Once those four champions are crowned, I want them to meet in a Final Four to determine the Montana State Champion. The respective winners won't lose the title they've already secured. They will always be the Class B state champions or the Class C state champions. But they might not necessarily be the Montana state champs.
It's simple. The four champions are seeded and two semifinal games played, with the winners competing for the ultimate state title. It's just like the NCAA Final Four.
You know why I want this? Frankly, I'm sick of listening to people argue over which team is better. You know these arguments saying that just because a team was in Class C doesn't mean that it isn't better than a team in Class A. These arguments go in circles with no one ever winning, because there is no winning argument.
In this system, you get to find out.
I know the argument is always that Class AA and Class A are in no-win situations because they have more numbers, so if they do win it's because they have more kids to choose from and if they lose, hen surely a large crack in the earth will form, swallowing Montana as we know it. Look, they're the bigger schools, so quit whining and get out there and play.
Besides, anything can happen in basketball, especially with the three-point line being the great equalizer. Maybe Class AA or Class A would win the majority of the time, but how much greater would it be if a Class B or Class C school did manage to win. What I think you find out is that, with high school kids, nothing is certain.
Could you imagine the crowds? There are probably only three arenas - the Metra in Billings, Brick Breeden Fieldhouse in Bozeman and Dahlberg Arena in Missoula - that could hold such an event. It would take four days with the boys and girls games staggered on opposite days. After a few years, it would rival the state wrestling tournament.
This whole philosophy would never work in football: Sheer quantity will always defeat small amounts of quality in football. Rather, my idea pertains to when and where the state championship games are played. They are all played on one day in different towns across the state. What that does is limit the number of people who can see them and limits our already minimal television coverage.
In many states, they play the championship games at a neutral site on the same day or consecutive days. Are you seeing what I'm getting at here? Let's bring the Class AA, Class A and Class B state championship games to one site and play them all in one day. Why isn't that possible?
First of all, you have the perfect facility in Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula. It's big enough to hold the largest crowd, it has brand new surface, which levels the playing field for each team, and if UM athletics director Wayne Hogan has his way, it will soon have stadium lights that would allow at least three games in one day.
It works like this: The first game, say Class B, starts at noon. The Class A kicks off by 3:30 p.m. and, at the latest, the Class AA by 7:30 p.m. It would be one day of football, giving fans the opportunity to see the best in the state either in person or on television. It would be a colossal moneymaker in terms of concessions and gate fees, while giving many kids the opportunity to compete in a stadium that they would otherwise only see from the stands.
As for volleyball, the MHSA is going to a one-site format next year. My only change would be warm-up time - limit it. It seems like more time is spent warming up than actually playing. The best scenario would be having a facility with a main gym and then a smaller gym nearby where teams could do the majority of their warm-ups.
I know my ideas seemed far-fetched and insane, well, except for the volleyball one. Still, think about them for just a moment. Imagine the energy, excitement, and enthusiasm. Imagine the added intensity, passion and pride. Imagine the surge of adrenaline with each glorious win. Imagine the heartache of each agonizing loss.
I don't know about you, but I'm starting to get goosebumps.