The Team Wrestling Finals – returning to Wings Event Center this winter for the third consecutive season – provide arguably the most charged championship atmosphere of any event hosted by the Michigan High School Athletic Association.
They’ve found a wonderful home in Kalamazoo, as Wings puts the state’s best on a raised center stage and under the lights of the substantial scoreboard as they compete for the ultimate team achievement. Fans have found a comfortable home as well, as the Finals during the last two seasons have drawn their two largest crowds over the last 11 years including a record 9,469 fans in 2018. And there are plenty of reasons to anticipate another packed arena when the MHSAA returns Feb. 28-29.
32 … to 16 … to 8 … to 4
Over the course of roughly 30 hours, 32 wrestling teams from all over Michigan will be whittled to four champions. Wrestling is the only head-to-head MHSAA sport featuring a format with Quarterfinals, Semifinals and Finals all contended on back-to-back days at one location.
The tournament is split into four divisions based on school enrollment (the largest schools compete in Division 1, the next-largest in Division 2, etc.). The arena floor is set up with four wrestling mats in a line, adjacent to each other. At noon Feb. 28, eight Division 4 teams will wrestle Quarterfinal matches simultaneously on those four mats, followed by Division 1 teams at 2:15 p.m., Division 3 at 4:30 and Division 2 at 6:45. The next morning, on Feb. 29, four Semifinals will be wrestled simultaneously at 9:30 and then noon, setting up the grand finale – all four championship matches getting underway together at 3:45 that afternoon.
It’s truly a spectacle, complete with on-mat awards presentations for all four champions and runners-up as the weekend comes to a close – with cheering sections for all eight teams giving each a final salute.
Contenders come from all over
Teams and their fans converge on Kalamazoo from all over the state for this event. And there’s something special about the variety of schools represented over the weekend.
Last season’s field again included the state’s biggest school – Macomb Dakota with roughly 3,000 students – and also some of the smallest, down to Onaway with an enrollment of 180.
Total, 22 counties sent at least one team to last year’s Quarterfinals – with Kent, Lenawee and Macomb sending three apiece.
We march, we sing, we cheer
The first MHSAA Wrestling Finals took place in 1948. A few traditions have become lasting over the last many years, and especially since a format change created separate team and individual championship meets in 1988. (The Individual Finals take place the weekend after the Team Finals, at Ford Field in Detroit.)
The most visible Team Finals tradition is the march before each of the last three rounds of the tournament. All eight teams – members often huddled and carrying school banners – circle the four-mat area to be cheered before coming together on the mat for the national anthem and competition. Teams also are chosen to carry flags for the United States, Michigan and again this year Kalamazoo and the MHSAA.
Singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” also has held a special place at the Team Wrestling Finals. Former Battle Creek Central coach Jeff McGinnis lent his voice to the event as the anthem singer during the Finals’ long run at Battle Creek’s Kellogg Arena, and he also sang at Central Michigan University’s McGuirk Arena when Finals weekend moved there from Battle Creek in 2016. In 2017 at McGuirk, the anthem was sung by MHSAA official James McCloughan, a Vietnam veteran and former Army medic who was presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor. Last season’s anthems were sung by local students.
The fans as well play a significant role in making the Team Wrestling Finals perhaps the most festive of MHSAA championship events. Wrestling fans tend to be a tight-knit bunch after years of watching their children grow up competing against each other, usually in stuffed high school gyms all over our state. During Finals weekend, fans sit in designated areas across from each other on either side of the mat – and with four matches going, it’s easy to follow the action by turning attention to whichever section is loudest at the moment.
Perennial Powers Rise
We have tended of late to see many of the wrestling powerhouses back at Finals weekend year after year. The excitement, especially for that team’s fans, hits another level when a new contender breaks through. But it’s also a lot of fun to watch rivalries that have developed through multiple championship matches over the years.
In Division 1, Detroit Catholic Central has won seven of the last 10 championships including the last three, and Davison has been runner-up four of the last six years with Brighton the runner-up the last two. Lowell has followed four straight Division 2 titles by St. Johns from 2010-13 with six straight to set the record for consecutive Finals championships, breaking a three-way tie among biggest winners last season.
Richmond or Dundee has claimed the last 10 Division 3 championships – and they’ve met in the Final eight times over those 10 seasons, including last year when Dundee repeated as champion with a one-point victory. Similarly, in Division 4, Hudson or New Lothrop has won the last 11 titles – and they’ve faced each other in the championship match five of the last six seasons, although Clinton broke through with its first championship match appearance in 2019 before falling to the Tigers in the Final.
Copy and content provided by: Geoff Kimmerly, Michigan High School Athletic Association