Look deep into the world of high school wrestlers chasing college dreams, and you quickly see dollar signs.
There’s the absence of them that have led many colleges to drop the sport, and there’s the abundance of them in football that make that sport sometimes a better option.
“I love both of those sports and it depends on which colleges are interested in me and want me to come there,” said one of the area’s emerging wrestling standouts, Kickapoo junior Tony Grant. “(Money) is probably going to be a big part of my decision. I don’t have much money to pay for college.”
Grant is among a new generation of Springfield-area wrestlers helping the sport to create a lasting foothold in the basketball-dominated Ozarks.
But as local coaches recruit the hallways in an effort to fill rosters, their sales pitch is up against a tough reality. The sport of wrestling over the past 25 years has been put in a headlock of sorts at the college level, where there are fewer opportunities.
In essence, out of sight, out of mind is not a good thing. Hard to tell teenagers what could be when wrestling’s image isn’t as front and center as basketball and football.
Yet that is not to say there are no opportunities.
The state of Missouri, for instance, has eight collegiate wrestling programs, with Mizzou standing alone as the only NCAA D-I member.
Unfortunately, some 16 Show-Me state schools have discontinued the sport, including Missouri State in 1994.
In neighboring states, there are five wrestling programs in Oklahoma and six in Kansas — mostly junior colleges. Those states have seen 11 discontinued wrestling programs. Arkansas has no college that offers the sport.
Thus, competition for wrestling scholarships has become even more intense at the lower levels, and those scholarship dollars are not enormous. Division I schools, for instance, have only 9.9 full scholarships to give and 10 weight classes to fill.
It’s left two-sport athletes sometimes looking elsewhere.
But wrestlers shouldn’t give up. There are opportunities if they look.
That’s among the advice of University of Missouri coach Brian Smith, whose program has emerged as a national contender in the past 15 years, earning a No. 1 ranking in the 2006-2007 season. It’s been a top 10 program for years.
“Kids have to realize this is a sport where academic money is going to be important,” Smith said. “You look at a kid’s record and if you can get him academic money, or does he have other awards from his hometown? You have to be almost a financial aid director and an admissions adviser (in addition to a coach).”
Said Ozark High School wrestling coach Jesse Zeugin, “Football definitely has more money to give out, because wrestling is a low-budget sport and it doesn’t bring in a lot of money.”
Talented wrestlers with years of experience usually will find their way to a scholarship. Again, it’s just a matter of looking beyond the Ozarks.
Which is why Grant is an interesting story. He also is a running back for Kickapoo’s football team. But a year ago, his only loss in the state wrestling tournament was in the semifinals to Ozark’s Cody Lindsey, the eventual state champion. Grant placed third at 195 pounds.
“Football is probably his favorite sport, but I think with some success these next two years, he’ll have an opportunity to do either sport if he wants to,” Kickapoo coach Billy Buckley said. “He’s a year away from having to make that decision, so I think this summer and next season that will be more in the front of his mind than it is right now.”
The rigors of wrestling, such as maintaining a strict diet, do not scare Grant.
“I’m not really thinking about cutting weight. That comes with the sport of wrestling and I love it,” Grant said.
Like any sport, wrestlers cannot rely on in-season results alone to pique the interest of college recruiters. It’s something coaches tell teens who become both interested in joining their teams and wonder if a college opportunity could be found.
“There are a lot of college coaches that go to the state tournament and that’s where (wrestlers) get a lot of their exposure,” Buckley said. “Some kids get exposure over the summer at the freestyle and Greco-Roman tournaments. If you’re successful at the state tournament, you’ll start getting some letters.”
In fact, offseason success might be the only sure way to start getting letters.
“You won’t even get looked at if you’re not wrestling in the offseason and at the state tournament,” Zeugin said. “You shouldn’t even be thinking about a scholarship if you’re not wrestling there.”
That leaves wrestlers who are talented in wrestling and another sport — say football, which can offer 85 scholarships at the FBS level — weighing the best option: Which sport offers them a better path through college?
“Honestly, it’s whichever sport gets me the most money for college,” said Nixa senior heavyweight Xyah Ra, a standout both on the mats and the gridiron. “I don’t come from a wealthy family, so scholarships for football, wrestling, or academics are the only thing I can really count on to help me with my education.”
Fortunately for the sport, Mizzou is doing its part to keep wrestling fresh in the minds of high schoolers in the state.
“We’re the only D-I program in the state. Missouri boys want to go to a good program, and we have that at Missouri. We have tradition, we have success,” Smith said. “They want to be here, and they know it’s a supported program, so they’ll come here on a tiny bit of money or as walk-ons and earn their money while they’re here.”