How do college wrestling coaches view Fargo?
During Mark Branch’s first week of wrestling practice at Oklahoma State University in 1993 he was approached by Cowboy great and new teammate Alan Fried. Fried asked Branch his name and where he’s from. After the lanky 167-pound freshman from Oklahoma shared his name and hometown, Fried asked, “How did you do in Fargo?”
“I said, ‘What’s Fargo?'” recalled Branch, who participated in wrestling, football and track at Newkirk High School. “Honestly, it was that much ignorance. I came from a very small school. I graduated with 40 people. Our wrestling program was small and it was seasonal. Everybody in the school played multiple sports.”
Today, it’s hard to imagine any incoming freshman wrestler at a powerhouse wrestling program like Oklahoma State not being familiar with the Junior & Cadet National Championships in Fargo, North Dakota, but 23 years ago the wrestling landscape was much different. Junior Nationals had just come to Fargo in 1993 (Cadet Nationals would move to Fargo three years later), the field was comprised of far less competitors than today and the media coverage was minimal.
The event now known simply as Fargo, or Fargo Nationals, has become a mega showcase of high school-aged wrestling. The nation’s best 15-18 year-old wrestlers come together for eight days of competition on over 20 mats in late July. This year’s event takes place July 16-23 at the FARGODOME.
“Everybody seems to be familiar with Fargo,” said Roger Kish, head wrestling coach at North Dakota State, where the event is held every summer. “You don’t think of the event as USA Wrestling Nationals. It’s known across the country and the wrestling community as Fargo Nationals. I think you can probably go ask anybody about Fargo and they would know exactly what you’re talking about.”
Branch, who now serves as head wrestling coach at Wyoming, views Fargo as a key date on the recruiting calendar, like many college wrestling coaches across the country. Fargo results, though, don’t always tell the entire story, according to Branch. A wrestler competing in freestyle could suffer a defeat by getting caught in a leg lace or trap-arm gut wrench, moves that cannot be scored with in college wrestling.
“You see those things and you take it with a grain of salt,” said Branch. “The most important thing for me is I want to see the kids who are wrestling year-round. I want to see the kids who are dedicated. You get these kids in your program and you start teaching them that wrestling at the Division I level is a year-round sport. Some kids are not ready for that. It’s nice to know the kids who have done it already and they show that dedication before they get into your program.”
Air Force head wrestling coach Sam Barber echoes a similar sentiment.
“We like to see wrestlers who are committed to wrestling year-round,” said Barber. “First and foremost that’s the most important thing. Fargo signals that guys are committed to competing year-round and they don’t have that in-season-offseason mentality. We’re in-season all the time in Division I wrestling, but we’re doing different things in different parts of the year. It’s no doubt a 12-month endeavor.”
So what specifically do college wrestling coaches look for in wrestlers competing in Fargo?
“We look for core basic skills,” said Barber. “Can he penetrate? Can he hand fight? Can he circle and stay in the center? Those are some of the skills that are really important that you see in freestyle wrestling that transition into good collegiate style wrestlers.
“Then we look at some of the other stuff too. How do they handle winning and losing? How do they handle adversity? Parent interaction. What’s the family dynamic like? Are they coachable? Some of the intrinsic things. We’re not just standing there looking at the brackets waiting to see who stands on the podium and going down the podium and offering scholarships. Being a service academy, we’re looking at character, integrity, pride, poise, competition, fight, effort and attitude. You can evaluate those things at that tournament.
“If a guy is out selling singlets, that’s a big red flag to his commitment to wrestling.”