Imagine the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots being placed in the same NFL division.
That’s how Southern Door wrestling coach Jerry Englebert describes the WIAA Division 2 regional that his team has competed in for several years.
“It’s so lopsided it’s not even funny,” Englebert said about the talent pool within the regional compared to others over the years.
This year is shaping up to be no different for the six-team regional, which features four teams ranked in the top 10 of WIWrestling.com’s Division 2 rankings, including Luxemburg-Casco (No. 2), Wrightstown (No. 6), Denmark (No. 8) and Two Rivers (No. 10).
The stacked squads are a familiar sight to Englebert, whose team won’t have to face them this year since Southern Door’s enrollment warranted a move from D2 to D3.
However, Englebert still would like to see something done to change the makeup of traditionally strong regionals like the one his team has been a part of in the past.
“There are definitely better ways to do it,” Englebert said. “I’ve heard of a bunch of different ways and proposals, and I think it’s time that the WIAA gets a little more pressure to do so, but unfortunately coaches haven’t been sticking together, because if all the tough teams are in one spot, everybody else doesn’t want them in their regional.”
The “them” Englebert is referring to could largely be pointed at Luxemburg-Casco. The Spartans are tied for second in the state with 15 WIAA team state appearances since a dual tournament was implemented to determine team state champions in 1992.
L-C is also tied for second with 11 WIAA state titles overall, which is documented in a 99-page record book compiled by Jerry Van Ess.
Van Ess, a 1970 alum, wrote a letter to WIAA associate director Deb Hauser last year to inquire about making changes to how teams are placed for regionals. He documented L-C’s regional consistently producing the most individual state qualifiers from its sectional compared to the other three regionals in it.
There were 21 from L-C’s regional last year compared to three from the Wautoma regional. In 2015, there were 18 from the regional hosted by Southern Door compared to four from the Ripon regional. Van Ess’ statistics went on to examine more years and break down state medals won.
The top individuals in each weight class advance to sectionals from D2 and D3 regionals. The top scoring team from regionals qualifies for team sectionals.
“There are guys getting third that don’t get out of our regional that could have placed at state,” Van Ess said about L-C’s regional. “It’s by far the toughest regional in the state.”
Van Ess suggested switching Two Rivers with Valders, teams both located in the northern part of Manitowoc County, to offset what he feels is a competitive imbalance between regionals and sectionals. He got signatures from the six coaches within L-C’s regional who felt a change is warranted.
But as is often seen when conference realignment is proposed to the WIAA, divvying up a regional isn’t a one-step process. It’s more like dominoes.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” said Denmark wrestling coach Tim Kapinos, whose team hosts the D2 regional with L-C, Two Rivers, Wrightstown, Sturgeon Bay/Sevastopol and Manitowoc Lutheran/Roncalli on Saturday.
“I know that our regional certainly could be regarded as the best one in the state. There are so many times where you see some pretty good kids sitting at home after regionals and not given a chance to get to sectionals, which is a little bit troubling.”
Processing the process
The WIAA’s regional placement of teams in any sport is usually made several months before the season begins. Football is an exception because not every team makes the playoffs.
Sports like basketball and baseball are aware of possible opponents in their bracket, although the pairing of games isn’t made until the final week of the regular season.
Sports like track and field or wrestling, in which individuals compile points for their teams in regional competition, don’t have factors in determining competitive balance for their regional grouping.
“We never look at the strength or weakness of a program in determining who goes into a grouping,” Hauser said. “We’re looking merely for geography.”
Luxemburg-Casco wrestling coach Chas Treml doesn’t feel that has always been the case, pointing out an example from Division 1 wrestling with Wisconsin Rapids, which has been placed in a sectional with teams from the Green Bay area — over 100 miles away — for a majority of the years since the dual format for team state has been adopted.
Wisconsin Rapids has advanced to team state a record 18 times since 1992.
“What about Wisconsin Rapids, Merrill and Wausau West?” Treml said. “Geographically, they’re within a reasonable drive of each other. Yet, they were all split up into different regionals for years. That was because they all didn’t want to deal with Wisconsin Rapids.”
Wisconsin Rapids has advanced to team state one time over the past four years. It has been moved out of the D1 sectional featuring Green Bay area teams this year and moved into a different sectional because Antigo has dropped from D1 to D2. New London, another school previously in the same sectional as the Green Bay area teams, also dropped from D1 to D2.
Taking Wisconsin Rapids and New London’s place in the sectional is Kimberly and Kaukauna, the latter a three-time defending state champion.
“The geographic placement of schools is what it is,” Hauser said. “Schools don’t want to drive by a community to go to another community. That doesn’t make any sense to anybody.”
The distance between schools doesn’t always have to take precedence when it comes to postseason placement if a sport’s advisory committee supports a plan to bring to the WIAA Board of Control to garner a change.
For example, the Division 1 boys and girls basketball playoffs last year experienced a change in seeding. Instead of seeding only teams within a regional, the coaches advisory committee pushed to seed an entire sectional, which usually consists of 16-18 teams.
The coaches advisory committee in basketball wanted the change to prevent perceived stronger teams from meeting before sectionals. The move was made to prioritize competitive balance over geographic placement for early rounds, resulting in some long road trips for regional semifinals, like Green Bay East traveling to Germantown for a girls playoff game or Mequon Homestead playing at Bay Port in a boys regional semifinal game last year.
“The coaches were trying to get the best two teams out to the sectional instead of having the two best teams play in the regional final,” Hauser said. “They’re trying to get the two best teams out to the sectional semifinals and finals. The goal is to get the best teams to the state tournament.”
That’s what Treml wants to see done in wrestling for individuals and teams.
Going about it in wrestling is proving to be more difficult, though.
In 2014, a proposal to combine two regionals in D2 and D3 into super regionals was discussed by the wrestling coaches advisory committee. The proposal gained little traction due to the possibility that wrestlebacks may put competitors over the allotted five-match rule for one day of competition.
“That was always the hang-up because there is the chance or potential to have full wrestlebacks,” Coleman wrestling coach Kevin Casper said.
“It’s trying to figure out a way to divide it that they won’t have that problem. There are ways to do that, but it’s up to the coaches association to come up with a plan and then I think the WIAA would potentially act up on it.”
Some ideas that have been discussed by Treml and Two Rivers coach Joel Kuhl have been seeding top teams for regionals, expanding the field for team sectionals or basing regionals in part on the previous year’s individual sectional scores.
Those propositions, however, all go against the WIAA’s general rule of thumb to not take into account previous history or state rankings.
Making a step before a leap
How long it takes for a different proposal for the wrestling postseason to gain support remains to be seen.
It was a big step for the WIAA to adopt a dual tournament format in 1992 to determine wrestling team champions instead of awarding the team championships based on points gained at the individual state tournament.
The next logical step before changes to regionals and sectionals are made will likely be for the team and individual state tournaments to adopt a seeding procedure.
Minnesota adopted a form of seeding for its individual state tournament last year, deciding to seed the top four wrestlers in each weight class.
At the WIAA individual state tournament, Division 1’s preliminary matches are compiled at random, while Divisions 2 and 3 award byes into the quarterfinals to sectional champions.
Support for seeding team state stands a good chance to garner support based on how some other sports recently got the OK for adopting seeding procedures at WIAA state tournaments.
Beginning in the 2017-18 school year, boys and girls soccer and boys and girls tennis teams will determine top seeds for teams at state tournaments. For example, in tennis the eight coaches with teams at state in Division 1 will vote to seed the top four teams and place the other four randomly to prevent a possible quarterfinal where the top two ranked teams in the state may meet.
At the Division 2 level, the top two teams would be voted on for seeds with the other two being placed randomly.
Boys volleyball has been using seeds for its state tournament since 2012. Boys hockey will also implement seeds for its state tournament next year.
Seeding the team state wrestling tournament would prevent scenarios like the one that happened last year when Kaukauna and Hudson, the top two teams in WIWrestling.com’s Division 1 state rankings, met in the quarterfinals.
But seeding the state tournament still wouldn’t do anything on the road to state. Stratford and Coleman, the top two teams in D3, appear to be on a collision course to again meet at team sectionals, this time in the sectional semifinals.
The scenario of top-ranked teams meeting prior to state plays out often in other sports. So, why should the process change for wrestling?
“It would be great to separate the best teams,” Casper said. “That would be ideal, but in every other sport nobody else really does it, either.”
The topic of whether something could or should be done to alter the current makeup of the wrestling postseason will surely continue.
But right now it’s simply a matter of beating the person across from you on the mat if you want to get your hand raised and advance. That much about the sport will never change.
“The reality is right now that’s where we are at,” Kapinos said. “When we talk to our kids about how difficult our regional is, the reality is they have to overcome it.”
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