Say what you will about wrestlers and wrestling, but you'll have to admit the sport has hit on one dandy of a no-nonsense, eliminate-the-middle-man method of choosing a varsity team.
It's called the challenge match or the wrestle-off, and it puts the sport in its most simple and combative terms--me against you, loser leaves varsity, 'Do you feel lucky today, punk?'
It's necessary because there are 13 weight classes in high school wrestling (ranging from 98 pounds to 245 pounds at the beginning of the season), and therefore only 13 varsity spots. And there is no second string in wrestling. Since there are usually more than 13 people who want to wrestle varsity, competition for those spots, as in other sports, can be fierce.
But unlike other sports, those spots will not be filled with athletes who, for whatever reason, have tickled the fancy of the coach. No, they will be filled by wrestlers who straight out and straight up defeat other wrestlers.
"I think it's one of the best things about the sport," said Ryan Owings, a sophomore at Laguna Hills. "You don't have coaches making the decisions. It's all up to you. If you screw up and lose, it's your fault. There's no one else to blame but yourself."
The ground rules of the wrestle-off are simple. On an assigned day, usually the day before a dual match or tournament, a wrestling team is huddled on a mat and asked by its coach if there are any challenges to current varsity members.
Those wrestlers who think they might be varsity material raise their hands. The challenger and the challengee wrestle for the spot.
"It's all very cut and dried," said Gary Bowden, Canyon coach. "The best man that day is on the varsity for that match."
Catch that? The best man that day . Unlike other sports, a wrestling varsity changes from week to week and match to match. So if you challenge someone and lose, you can always try again next week, and the week after and the week after that.
Owings had been trying for some time to make the varsity. As the season started, the current wrestler at his weight, 134 pounds, had no problem disposing of Owings.
"He'd kill me 9-0," he said. "And he wasn't even breathing hard."
But week after week, challenge after challenge, the scores got a little closer, until last week Owings won the right to compete on the varsity in the Laguna Hills Invitational.
"I think it's pretty intimidating when a kid keeps coming at another kid week after week," said Cliff Jarmie, Laguna Hills coach. "You look at Ryan. No matter what happened, no matter how badly he got beat, he was back next week. You could tell, with an attitude like that, it was just a matter of time before he made it to varsity."
Even if he doesn't win, the challenge match provides a young wrestler with valuable varsity experience. Every week, he can challenge a varsity wrestler under match-type conditions. Challenge matches are usually conducted with all the intensity of an interscholastic match.
There is so much for one person to gain and so much for the other to lose.
"The competition is extremely intense during a wrestle-off because basically it's a final," said Rick Boyer, La Quinta coach. "Except, you either win the gold, or you get nothing."
If you're a wrestling coach, the challenge match is a bit of a godsend and a bit of a problem.
First the tough part:
You're a coach and you have a bunch of well-motivated kids who want to wrestle varsity. Except the only way those kids can ascend to the ranks of the varsity, and they know this as well as you, is to beat, defeat and deplete a teammate.
How do you keep the team concept alive when these teammates are at each others' throats.
"You drill into their heads that this is a team," Jarmie said. "That even when we're competing against each other, we're doing it to help each other."
Fran McGrath, Santiago coach, makes his wrestlers shake hands at every stop of action.
"I want to drive the point home that they are teammates," he said.
Jim Swieter, Los Alamitos coach, does not allow other wrestlers to watch challenge matches. He's afraid that wrestlers could start taking sides.
"I don't think it would be healthy for a kid to look out around the mat and see a teammate rooting for him to lose," he said.
But the pressure of bringing the team concept home is counter-balanced by the lack of pressure a coach feels when he makes out his lineup.
"I think wrestling coaches are the luckiest guys around," Swieter said. "The challenge match is so objective and clear cut. In softball, I get a lot of flak from parents about why their kid isn't playing instead of another kid. The best I answer I can give them is that I think the other kid is better."
The operative phrase here is, I think . No coach always knows whether the kid in the starting lineup is better than the one on the bench. And who knows if the kid on the bench is a really a clunker or a legend waiting to happen. Goodby Wally Pipp, hello Lou Gehrig.
But challenge matches take the guess work out of the whole process.
"If someone were to give me flak about why his kid wasn't wrestling varsity," Jarmie said, "I can always say, 'Because this other kid whipped him in the challenge match, case closed.' "