By JAMIE BAKER
The recipe for a successful wrestling tournament includes a few key ingredients.
Marketing, a solid field of teams with a local flavor and good wrestlers, coaches and fans.
For the past 37 years, the Van Buren Invitational has had each of those key ingredients.
Van Buren High School will roll out the welcome mats for the region’s wrestling teams for the 38th Van Buren Invitational on Friday.
“You have to do all those things to keep a tournament strong and I think we’ve done a pretty good job at that over the years with the Van Buren Invitational,” said area veteran official Ron Nieset, who along with Dusty Wilson and Gabe Gonzalez has run the tournament over the last several years.
“We want to keep it a strong tournament for years to come.”
The Van Buren Invitational is certainly unique.
Bracketed tournaments are on the decline in favor of dual meet and pool tournaments where wrestlers are guaranteed four or five matches per day.
When Arcadia head coach Dean Kirian wrestled and got into the coaching business in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were no pool tournaments. Every wrestling event was a bracketed tournament.
“Actually, I like having bracket tournaments on the schedule. I think a lot of time its better for wrestlers,” Kirian said. “If you have a young team, like I do, you want them to get experience. But going 0-5 in a pool tournament is hard to come back from.”
The VBI is one of just a handful of bracketed tournaments still remaining in Northwestern Ohio.
Perrysburg, Oregon Clay, Tiffin Columbian and next week’s 40-plus team event at Lima Central Catholic are among the last holdouts when it comes to hosting bracketed tournaments in the region. But with 28 Division III schools and one Division II school in Fostoria, all from this corner of the state, it makes the VBI unique.
Here are five things to watch at this weekend’s VBI:
BIGGEST VBI FIELD: With 29 teams entered in this year’s event it is the biggest VBI field ever.
The same 27 schools that competed last year return and past participants Delphos St. John’s and St. Wendelin are both back in the event.
St. John’s and St. Wendelin were both VBI regulars throughout the 1980s and 1990s but opted out of the tournament some years when it was held on the same weekend as the annual Catholic Invitational Tournament.
The Blue Jays have had plenty of VBI success with 26 champions during the tournament’s run.
Other teams from The Courier’s circulation area scheduled to compete include Ada, Arcadia, Bluffton, Carey, Columbus Grove, Cory-Rawson, Elmwood, Fostoria, Hopewell-Loudon, Lakota, Liberty-Benton, McComb, Mohawk, North Baltimore, Ottawa-Glandorf, Riverdale and host Van Buren.
The only three area wrestling programs not participating are Findlay, Upper Sandusky and Patrick Henry.
NBC POWER: Last year’s VBI team race was one of the closest ever and some of the same teams may be again dueling it out for the title.
Eastwood (175) managed to edge Northern Buckeye Conference rivals Otsego (174) and Elmwood (173) for the team title. Gibsonburg was also in position to win it late as the Golden Bears finished with 168 points.
Eastwood and Elmwood should again be near the top. The Eagles beat the Royals on criteria after the two teams tied at 36-36 in their dual match earlier this season. Other teams to keep an eye on include Wayne Trace, Mohawk and a Gibsonburg team that Nieset thinks may be a darkhorse pick.
FOUR TIMER: Wayne Trace’s George Clemens IV will have a chance to join some elite company this weekend.
He will be trying to win his fourth straight VBI title this weekend for the Raiders. Clemens, who has competed in the 126 and 132 pound weight classes this season, won titles at 106 pounds as a freshman and sophomore before taking the 120-pound championship last season.
Only five wrestlers in the tournament’s history have won four championships. Lakota’s Alan Sachs (1994-97), Hopewell-Loudon’s Doug Jesse (1997-2000), Monroeville’s Drew Schafer (2001-04), Bluffton’s Josh Falk (2004-07) and Swanton’s Mimmo Lytle (2009-12) are VBI four-time champs.
FIND YOUR PLACE: A total of 10 state placers participated in last year’s VBI. One would expect a similar number to be competing in the tournament this season.
Two area wrestlers who are scheduled to compete are returning state placewinners. Hopewell-Loudon’s Damion Vitt is unbeaten heading into the tournament and has won a big championship already this season when he claimed the 160-pound crown at Mansfield’s J.C. Gorman Invitational.
Mohawk’s Cole Draper didn’t win a championship, but a fourth-place finish at 170-pounds in the 57-team Greater Miami Valley Wrestling Association Tournament certainly speaks for itself.
FIRST WHISTLE: The tournament gets underway at 5 p.m. on Friday with three rounds of action.
The tournament will resume Saturday at 10 a.m. with consolation wrestling followed by the semifinals. The finals are set for approximately 5 p.m.
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