Cliff Gillies, the former Washington Interscholastic Activities Association executive director, had a vision. He wanted his state high school sports championships to be both fan-friendly and cost-efficient.
So he pushed for consolidation.
The idea of moving separate state tournaments to one primary site was not met with immediate approval. Many longtime coaches were used to the traditional way, and groused about the idea.
Gillies didn’t budge. And the reality borne from his idea is today arguably the most popular state tournament of all – Mat Classic.
To pull off the under-one-roof state wrestling championships back in 1989, Gillies had to find, well one giant roof. With the help of former Washington State Wrestling Coaches Association president Mike Hess, and a trio of ex-wrestling coaches turned administrators in Steve Anderson, Jim Meyerhoff and Shelly Thiel, terms were negotiated to move three separate wrestling tournaments – AAA from various locations, AA from Eastern Washington University and A/B from Moses Lake High School – to the Tacoma Dome.
“It is a unique melting,” WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese said. “The inception of the idea came from a group of coaches years ago, and they pitched it to Cliff – and he ran with it.”
“A great idea,” Colbrese said.
Today marks the start of the 25th Mat Classic. The tournament has expanded to five boys classifications, and an all-girls state championship. Eighty champions will be crowned Saturday night.
Taking an extended look at truly one of the most outstanding state tournaments not only in Washington, but also in the country, The News Tribune identifies five defining moments – or memories – that have taken place in 25 years.
NO. 5: FIRST YEAR TRIALS
By no means did Mat Classic I come off a finished product. Its organization was in good hands, though, thanks to Steve Anderson, Jim Meyerhoff and Shelly Thiel, all former wrestling coaches turned administrators.
“We met six to eight times at the old WIAA headquarters off Lake Sammamish,” Thiel said. “The experience we had running tournaments – Jim especially with national tournaments – we all put our heads together.”
That first event featured 18 mats for three tournaments. And they were laid down over the Tacoma Dome’s icy floor, which had been used at the time for National Hockey League exhibitions and minor league games.
“We learned you can cover the ice,” Meyerhoff said. “But you can’t cover the gutters.”
The gutters were eventually filled in by strips of carpet before the mats were put on the floor to have the smoothest surface possible.
Then there was the pre-meet weigh-in. To protect against any wrestler tomfoolery, the WIAA decided to produce identification for each participant – a time-consuming activity.
“Now they bring their own ID,” Meyerhoff said.
And after a group of cheerleaders caught a glimpse of a bunch of naked wrestlers standing around in the open area, the WIAA now has a curtain to enclose the weigh-in, Meyerhoff said.
“In spite of the things we struggled with, it did not affect wrestling,” Meyerhoff said. “No way (coaches) wanted to leave after that. The event itself was so much bigger and better than what they experienced individually.”
NO. 4: DYNAMIC RIVALRY
Plenty of great head-to-head matches have taken place over the years. None were the equal of the rivalry between Tahoma’s Michael Johnson and South Kitsap’s Brent Chriswell from 2004-05.
The first time these two titans met for a state championship was 2004. Johnson won, 4-1, to claim the Class 4A 160-pound title.
Seconds after the match ended, the two wrestlers and their respective corners got into it. Chriswell claimed one of Johnson’s on-mat “pokes” was way out of line.
“If I lose, I lose – and I say, ‘Well done,’ ” Chriswell said. “I am not about cheating.”
The wrestling community certainly never forgot the heated exchange, which was why there was so much anticipation for a rematch the next year in the 171 finals.
In front of a robust and eager crowd, the match was tied at 2 in the third period when the South Kitsap junior tried a freestyle moved called a crotch lift – a twisting roll that earned him the match-clinching takedown. He won, 4-3.
At the end of it, the ultra-hyper Johnson was subdued, and the low-key Chriswell stood exhausted. The two shook hands, and have never spoken to each other since.
Chriswell won another 4A title the following season, and is now finishing his final semester at Boise State. Johnson did not wrestle in college.
“I was surprised by how many people came up and told me, ‘Good match,’ ” Chriswell said. “We had an unspoken rivalry. I did not want to admit he was my rival, but I knew it.”
NO. 3: THE MAN ON THE MICROPHONE
To find the remade tournament a new name, the WIAA ran a contest. It collected 71 entries. And former Moses Lake state champion Craig Skeesick’s “Mat Classic” suggestion won out.
The tournament also adopted a catch-phrase as the host of the “World’s Oldest and Greatest Sport” – coined by legendary public-address announcer Ed Aliverti.
Aliverti was a music teacher at Edmonds High School. In the early 1960s, Byron Nelson was the school’s wrestling coach. One night, a wrestling match and a music concert happened to be going on at the same time.
Nelson offered the music director a compromise: The wrestlers can sing in the musical concert if the Aliverti agreed to do the lineup introductions at dual meets.
Aliverti went on to become the “voice” of wrestling, announcing at NCAA Division I championships, world championships and at the Summer Olympics.
“What that guy did,” Lake Stevens coach Brent Barnes said, “was give our tournament instant credibility.”
On Aliverti’s suggestion, his announcer’s table was put in the middle of the Mat Classic arena that first year.
“He wanted to be the center of attention, without taking away from wrestling,” Meyerhoff said.
Eventually Aliverti moved to the north grandstands where, from dawn to dusk, he would not only announce all of the action, but he also did it with unique flair.
And the best came on Saturday night before the finals when he would sing “America the Beautiful.”
Aliverti was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1994. He died in 2010 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 77.
NO. 2: GIRL TRAILBLAZERS
In the old days, if a girl wanted to get on the mat, she would have to wrestle a boy.
It wasn’t until after 2002 when all-girl tournaments started popping up in Washington. Vashon High School hosted the first invitational of that kind in 2002. Two years later, Emerald Ridge High School held the first tournament of all-girl dual meets.
And later in 2004, girls wrestling came to the Tacoma Dome as a non-sanctioned state invitational.
Needless to say, a sanctioned state girls wrestling tournament was in the works. Nobody knew the exact details of it, or when it would debut.
But when Puyallup High’s Whitney Conder entered the Class 4A 103-pound bracket against boys in 2005, and ended up finishing sixth, one thing was for certain – girls wrestling was improving fast.
“I believe Whitney was a maverick,” said Bryan Bartelson, the former Puyallup coach. “Where there was still a lot of opposition to girls wrestling, she showed a lot of talent and determination. She showed she was a wrestler.”
Conder was seventh in the 103 draw the following year. In 2007, when the WIAA finally made girls wrestling a sanctioned sport, Olympic’s Camie Yeik competed in the 3A 103 draw against boys, and placed eighth. The next year, she finished sixth.
Today, the National Federation of State High School Association estimates nearly 8,000 girls are wrestling. By percentage of growth, it is the fastest-rising sport at the high-school level.
Washington is one of five states which puts on an all-girls state wrestling tournament.
“Girls wrestling,” Vashon coach Anders Blomgren said, “has been fully brought out to the public’s view.”
NO. 1: OPEN DOOR TO FOUR
Every Mat Classic wrestler aspires to join the elite of fraternity of four-time state champions.
The club’s founding member was R.A. Long’s Pat Connors – at Mat Classic VI in 1994.
Connors wrapped up his 33-0 season – and 123-4 career – by winning a 13-4 decision over Ferndale’s James Summers in the 2A finals at 129. He then celebrated by signing a few T-shirts he made up celebrating the four-timer feat, and throwing them into the crowd.
“I felt if everything went well these last few days, I would do it,” Connors told reporters at the time.
And what is his view now, about 19 years later, as a longtime assistant coach at Kelso High School?
“Opening up that door, I didn’t think of it that way,” Connors said. “So many guys could have done it before me – I was just fortunate enough.”
When Connors thinks about it, his mind races to the coaches in his corner that season – outgoing R.A. Long coach Fred Kalal and USA Wrestling coach Bob Blessing. Both died last year.
“They were very instrumental in my wrestling career,” Connors said.
Since Connors, nine other wrestlers have won four state titles: Tonasket’s Martin Mitchell (1998-2001), Lake Stevens’ Burke Barnes (1999-2002), Kelso’s Brandon Sitch (2003-06), Black Hills’ Jimmy Belleville (2006-09), Sedro-Woolley’s Derek Garcia (2007-10), Republic’s Ryn Rollins (2007-10), Zillah’s Chris Castillo (2008-11), Orting’s Drew Templeman (2009-12) and Kiona-Benton’s Sheridan McDonald (2008-11) on the girls side.
“It is a fraternity,” Connors said, “that not too many of us are in.”
MAT CLASSIC XXV
Today and Saturday, Tacoma Dome
Schedule: Today – First session, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Second session (including quarterfinals), 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday – Third session (including semifinals, and all state-placing matches), from 10 a.m. until 2:15 p.m. Championship round scheduled to start at 5:15 p.m.
Tickets and parking: Daily passes are $15 for adults, and $11 for students and senior citizens. Tournament passes are $23 (adults) and $17 (students/senior citizens). On-site parking is limited, but private lots and street parking is available. Also, patrons are encouraged to park downtown (Park Plaza, Convention Center Park, North Pacific Plaza) and take the Tacoma Link light rail to the dome transit center located three blocks away from the tournament.
2012 team champions: 4A – Tahoma. 3A – Enumclaw. 2A – Deer Park. 1A – Orting. B – Warden. Girls – Sedro-Woolley.
The skinny: No school has taken home more Mat Classic titles than Lake Stevens (eight) – and the Vikings are poised to add to that total. They bring 14 wrestlers and have state-title contenders in the Soler brothers (Michael at 106 pounds; Eric at 138), Jesse Peterson at 132 and Brandon Johnson at heavyweight. If Lake Stevens slips, defending champion Tahoma (11 wrestlers, five regional champions) or Greater Spokane League winner Mead (six wrestlers, two regional champions and state favorites in Tyler McLean at 160, and Chandler Rogers at 170) can take the title. Enumclaw will bring 12 wrestlers to the 3A tournament, but the loss of two-time state champion Lucas Somera (head) to injury really opens the door for other teams, including University (nine wrestlers, six regional champions) and Decatur (10 wrestlers, eight regional finalists, four regional champions). Consolation-match points could very well decide the 2A race among Othello (nine wrestlers), Orting (eight), Toppenish (seven), Deer Park (seven) and Centralia (six). Granger (10 wrestlers, eight regional finalists) and Zillah (nine wrestlers, seven regional finalists) battled it out for the Region III title a week ago, and that rivalry is expected to decide the 1A crown as well. Granger’s Joshua Salcedo is trying to become a four-time state finalist, after back-to-back 1A titles in 2011 and 2012. North Kitsap’s Jake Velarde will attempt to become the 11th wrestler in state history to win four state titles. He is the favorite at 138 in 2A, but Fife’s Maverick Reddaway, a three-time state placer, could give him a run if both make the finals. In celebration of the 25th Mat Classic, WIAA officials plan on recognizing the 12 individuals who have worked at all of the tournaments (Friday morning), all the state champions from Mat Classic I in 1989 (Friday afternoon), all the four-time state champions (Saturday morning; eight of the 10 are expected to attend) and the Parade of Champions (Saturday night).todd.milles@ thenewstribune.com