Graphic by Mark Madia/Uinta County Herald
EVANSTON — It’s an event that packs the Red Devils’ gym like no other, to the rafters. It’s the Evanston Invitational Wrestling Tournament, known simply as “The E.I.” And it’s this Friday and Saturday, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.
It sure doesn’t hurt that there are 27 teams participating, with varsity, junior varsity and freshman divisions. Many are accompanied by their fan bases, and some even sport cheerleading squads, adding to the capacity crowds. Six, and sometimes more, matches take place simultaneously.
The field is down somewhat, from the usual 30-plus teams it attracts, but it’s doubtful anyone will notice a difference, and most every team which takes part on an annual basis will be present, including perennial powerhouse programs.
In alphabetical order, high school wrestling teams scheduled to battle are Ben Lomond, Big Piney, Bear River, Cheyenne East, Cokeville, Evanston, Green River, Grantsville, Hannah, Jackson Hole, Kemmerer, Lyman, Morgan, Mountain View, North Summit, Pinedale, Rich County, Riverton, Rock Springs, Sky View, Spring Creek, South Summit, Star Valley, Uintah, Union and Weber — a good mix of Wyoming and Utah grappling teams, with a sprinkling of Nevada.
Head coach Larry Wagstaff anticipates a great test for his wrestlers, along with all the other teams taking part. Utah teams will have a jump on their Wyoming counterparts, as they get their season under way a week or so earlier, but for the teams from the Equality State, the E.I. represents the first opportunity to wrestle someone other than a teammate, and the first official matches.
“I think Cheyenne East will be extremely tough,” Wagstaff told the Herald.
The T-Birds were the runner-up to Campbell County in Wyoming’s 4A division last season, and also placed third in last year’s E.I., behind Weber High School of Ogden and Star Valley. The coach also pointed to the Weber Warriors, Star Valley Braves and the South Summit Wildcats as fielding quality teams. South Summit placed fourth in the 2011 event.
Those schools should again fare well, but they’re not alone. The Cokeville Panthers finished in the 2011 E.I. top 10, and are ranked number one in Wyoming’s preseason rankings for Class 2A. Star Valley holds the top spot in the 3A ranks entering the season.
A good representation of Wyoming’s 4A division will be competing, with Cheyenne East, which received the preseason nod of number two, behind the Camels of Campbell County, 4A state champs for a decade. Riverton was selected as the fourth best 4A squad entering the season, followed by Green River at number five and Evanston tied for sixth with Sheridan.
From Utah, depending on which preseason ranking fans are inclined to believe, Bear River, Rich County, South Summit, Uintah from Vernal, and Union are all top 10-ranked wrestling programs, along with Weber, representing Utah schools in 1A to 5A divisions. The Bear River Bears were ranked No. 1 in Utah’s 3A in one listing, and are coached by former Red Devils wrestler and Wagstaff protegé Jeff Martin. There are others.
Evanston ended last season strongly, outpacing many of the schools that had defeated the Red Devils in dual meets, placing second in the 4A West Regional Tournament they hosted, and seventh at state. The dual losses, more often than not, were the direct result of Evanston giving away six points in forfeits for every weight division in which they did not have wrestler. The Red Devils had a bunch of wrestlers in the middle-weight classes, between 126 and 160 pounds, but their numbers were thin in the upper and lower divisions.
The situation will be remedied somewhat in the 2012-2013 season, but maybe not immediately. Wagstaff explained that, the way in which wrestlers are certified coming into the season, it will be a week or two before they can move to other weight divisions. Add to that the recent regulations governing the sport in Wyoming, which do not allow for an athlete to drop below 7.3 percent body fat.
According to the coach, most wrestlers come into the season in shape, at about that level, as far as body fat percentage goes. That leaves a little wiggle room in terms of dropping a classification or two. Surprisingly, there is also a ceiling on how many weight classes a wrestler can go up.
Wagstaff expects all 14 weight classes of the E.I. to be tough, as they have been historically, and has high hopes for his matmen to vie competitively this weekend. Those weight classes are: 106, 113, 120, 126, 132, 138, 145, 152, 160, 170, 182, 195, 220, and 285, mirroring the weight classes employed by the schools in Utah, but because of the aforementioned weight-shifting criteria, some wrestlers for Evanston and other schools will wrestle at the same weight as teammates. It can carry over into the season, and is common with large squads.
While the coach hopes for all of his wrestlers to have great seasons, beginning with the E.I., some have a pedigree and are marked men. Senior Brayton Sanders is a returning state champion at 152 pounds, and will compete at 160 this season. Junior Batista Covolo finished in second place, earning All-State honors at 145 as a sophomore, and will move up to 152 for his junior campaign. Bruce Lester finished third at state last season at 132, and will be bumped up to 138 to begin 2012-2013. Wagstaff made mention of some namesakes, including Red Devils football quarterback Kyler Wagstaff.
“Kyler has gotten stronger, and his little brother Korbin is a scrapper,” Wagstaff shared. “Will Kishpaugh will wrestle at 170 as a sophomore, and is a real quality kid. We have two Sowers, both at 220, and we hope to bring one down to 195. They’ve been working hard.”
WyoWrestling.com, the same organization that ranks the teams, also put together preseason individual rankings. Red Devils grapplers included in the preseason top six are:
• Korbin Wagstaff, fifth at 106
• Bruce Lester, second at 138
• Andrew Lester, fourth at 145
• Kyler Wagstaff, fifth at 145
• Batista Covolo, second at 152
• Brayton Sanders, second at 160
Wagstaff is ably assisted by Todd Nixon, Steve Moore, and his nephew, Garth Wagstaff, all former Red Devils wrestlers and state champions, along with some volunteers who greatly assist with the program.
“They’re a great group of young men,” Wagstaff said of his staff, “maybe not so young anymore, but very knowledgeable and were tough competitors, college wrestlers and high school state champions.”
Speaking of volunteers, that is definitely a strength and source of pride for the successful staging of the E.I. There are volunteers who have taken part for years, even decades.
“There are people who take their vacations to be a part of it,” Wagstaff said. “ All it takes is a phone call and they’re ready to go. They’ll be at their same table, station or position, doing what they do best, and that’s a very good thing for us.”
As one of the longest-tenured coaches in the state, one would think Wagstaff has seen it all since 1978, and he has, although this season does mark a first for his program. Ariel Stratton, who goes by AJ, is the first female wrestler in EHS Red Devils wrestling history.
“First one ever,” Wagstaff asserted. “She tries hard, and it’ll be interesting to see how she does.”
The tournament will be seeded by a computer draw during a Friday morning coaches’ meeting at 8:30 a.m. Weigh-ins will get under way a half hour earlier, beginning at 8 a.m. Wrestling excitement will get started anytime between 10 a.m. and noon, both Friday and Saturday, with the championship matches slated for late afternoon and early evening on Saturday.
It’s a daunting task to begin the season with a tournament, which may be tougher due to the caliber of competition present, than state tournaments which end the year. But it’s one the Red Devils wrestling program and their competition look forward to every year.
“We work them hard,” Wagstaff said of his wrestlers, on behalf of his assistants and him. “We expect a lot, and they have high expectations of themselves and their teammates. You saw how they really push each other.”
Ticket prices are $3 for children and students with a student I.D., and $5 for adults per day.
The E.I. is a nice pre-holiday economic boon to the community, too, as teams, officials, fans and the like stay in hotels, dine in restaurants, purchase fuel and provisions while here, and for return trips home, and undoubtedly impact other sectors, including retail stores.