What goes into creating a wrestling team’s schedule?
When Kevin Dresser took over as head wrestling coach at Virginia Tech in 2006, the program was in the bottom tier of wrestling programs in Division I. Scheduling teams to face the Hokies back then was not difficult because most wrestling programs viewed Virginia Tech as an easy win.
Fast forward 10 years to today and things have changed significantly.
This past season Dresser led Virginia Tech to a program-best fourth-place finish at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
“People don’t want to wrestle us,” said Dresser, who was named NWCA Coach of the Year this past season. “Big Ten schools don’t want to wrestle us because the Big Ten Conference schedule is tough. My opinion is they don’t want to schedule another tough dual meet.”
The Hokies finished in 60th place at the NCAAs in Dresser’s first season back in 2006-07, but continued to make strides each season, improving to 39th the next season and 24th the following season. As the program improved, Dresser made Virginia Tech’s schedule more challenging.
“My first couple years we were pretty bad, so we didn’t want to go out and schedule the rest of the pretty good teams,” said Dresser. “As we’ve gotten better we feel like we’ve toughened it up.”
Virginia Tech has been a staple at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, a two-day event in early December that attracts many of the nation’s top wrestling programs.
“We get to see some West Coast teams that we don’t see anywhere else,” Dresser said of competing in Las Vegas. “I like it because it puts guys in tournament formats where they have to make weight multiple days. They have to wrestle back after a loss, things you don’t get to experience with a dual meet schedule. If you lose at 10 o’clock on Saturday morning, you might have to be out there again at noon to stay in the tournament. I think that’s good mental toughness preparation.”
In Division I wrestling, two premier midseason events, Midlands Championships and Southern Scuffle, take place the week after Christmas. Traditionally, Virginia Tech has competed in one of those two events, but this past season Dresser chose to leave them off the schedule.
“I just think our season is too long to be on your game,” said Dresser. “It’s no secret … It’s important to be fresh at the end of the year. That was one strategy that we changed.”
Dresser allowed his wrestlers to go home for eight to ten days during Christmas break because he wanted them to come back refreshed. It worked. His team came back refreshed, but nearly half the team came back in less than tip-top shape.
“Those first matches back we were a little more vulnerable,” said Dresser. “But I guess I would rather be vulnerable in early January than be burned out in March.”
Dresser, who handles the scheduling duties himself at Virginia Tech but consults with his staff, admits there are some challenges that come with putting together the schedule. Not only do some programs not want to wrestle Virginia Tech, but the wrestling team also shares its competition venue, Cassell Coliseum, with the basketball team.
“When I schedule something it really is not set in stone,” said Dresser. “The weekend might be set in stone, but the actual day and time for the match is not set in stone until the ACC basketball schedule comes out. That’s always in August. We really don’t have a final exact schedule until August, but we at least know the weekends.”
At Hofstra, head wrestling coach Dennis Papadatos sets the team’s schedule based on what type of team is returning.
“The first thing you have to do is look at your team,” said Papadatos. “What do I have? What does this team need to succeed? The schedule is so important on developing your guys. It’s so important to peaking at the right time. You have to know what you have and what they need.”
Papadatos believes it’s important to schedule a variety of different types of teams.
“I like to put together a schedule that has really hard competition, matches you’re expected not to win,” said Papadatos. “Then you want a few teams that you expect to win against no matter what happens. You also want a good mix of teams that are going to make for a competitive dual. The combination of the three is very important to get guys ready.”
The NCAA allows wrestling programs to have 16 dates on the schedule. Two of those 16 dates can be events that have two-day weigh-ins, like the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, Midlands and Southern Scuffle.
Hofstra traditionally has competed in Las Vegas, but Papadatos opted not to send his team to Sin City this coming season in large part because of financial constraints. The school is in a fiscal crisis and the athletic director advised him to cut back on travel expenses when possible. This year Hofstra partnered with Journeymen Wrestling and Frank Popolizio to host a six-team round-robin event.
“It’s exactly the reason you go to Vegas,” Papadatos said of the first-year event. “The only difference is we do it in our home gym and we save probably ten grand.”
In April of 2015, Mitch Smith was hired as head wrestling coach at his alma mater, West Liberty University, a Division II program in West Virginia. The schedule for the following season was already in place when he was hired.
“This coming year is the first year we were able to schedule all the events we wanted,” said Smith.
Smith believes it’s important for home dual meets to be more than just dual meets.
“We try to make every home meet an event where we have something going on,” said Smith. “We have military night, senior night, alumni night. This year we did a gold rush night, so the first 100 students that came to the match received a free gold wrestling T-shirt. We do different events for our matches. There’s a 5-year-old wrestling fan named Holdyn who has leukemia, so we did a Team Holdyn night. All proceeds went to him and his family to help with treatment.”
Smith, who started his college wrestling career at Hofstra before transferring to West Liberty, likes to test his wrestlers against Division I competition. This coming season West Liberty will face Division I programs Clarion and Hofstra.
“I think it helps with recruiting and shows that we can wrestle against Division I opponents,” said Smith. “It gauges where your team is at. It’s nice to wrestle against those teams for recruiting purposes and to give you an outside look of Division I.”
Duane Bastress, head wrestling coach at York College of Pennsylvania, a Division III program, also likes to seek out strong competition for his program.
“We want to wrestle the best any time we can,” said Bastress. “The last couple years I’ve shifted to the philosophy of trying to do more individual tournaments to get guys ready for the national tournament. For example, this year our schedule has five individual tournaments. That’s kind of the focus of this year to get them ready for the regional and national tournaments.”
Bastress, a two-time NCAA Division III champion as a competitor, begins the process of putting together his team’s schedule in late March, about two weeks after the national tournament.
“I try to have it finalized by the middle of May,” said Bastress.
Bob Callison, a high school wrestling coach in Arizona, tries to have his schedule completed by the time students return to the classroom.
“I know some coaches like it early if they can get it by summer,” said Callison. “I like to have it by the time school starts.”
Callison built Mountain View High School into a wrestling powerhouse in Arizona. He guided the program to back-to-back big-schools state championships in 2014 and 2015, and a third-place finish this past season. Earlier this year he resigned as Mountain View’s head wrestling coach after 11 seasons and was hired to lead the wrestling program at Casteel High School.
Initially at Mountain View, Callison looked locally for competition before venturing outside the state.
“First I wanted to win our city tournaments and do well,” said Callison. “As soon as we were beating everyone in the city it kind of went out from that.”
Two seasons ago Callison took Mountain View to the Cheesehead in Wisconsin. Last season he brought his team to The Clash in Minnesota.
“If you can go out of state, I think it’s important,” said Callison. “I think it builds some comradery just by traveling together as a team. We had kids who had never seen snow before. Just to give them a different culture was important. As a teacher, I look at it from an educational standpoint.”
The Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) allows wrestling programs to compete in 12 events and four tournaments during the season. Teams cannot compete on Sundays. Callison has turned down opportunities to compete in major out-of-state events because of these restrictions.
“There have been years when we’ve had good football teams that go late it in the season. Sometimes those kids miss half the season, and they can only wrestle the second half the season. Sometimes it’s hard to get those guys caught up on mat time.”
Callison’s new wrestling program, Casteel, will be comprised of only freshmen and sophomores, which will factor into his decisions on which events are chosen for the schedule.
“I’m going to have to make a varsity out of young kids,” said Callison. “To take them into even something like Flowing Wells is going to be tough when you don’t have any upperclassmen or even kids who have been in that tournament before. It’s the best kids in the state.”
Casteel will compete in Arizona’s small-school division, Division 4, for the next two seasons.
“I’m trying to find the best Division 4 and Division 3 teams,” said Callison.
Dan Lefebvre guided St. Michael-Albertville (Minn.) High School to a title at The Clash in Rochester, Minnesota, during the 2012-13 season. As one of Minnesota’s premier high school wrestling programs, Lefebvre feels it’s important to have Minnesota’s two premier in-season wrestling events, The Clash and Minnesota Christmas Tournament, on his team’s schedule.
“We’re an elite Minnesota team,” said Lefebvre. “The two tournaments provide the best competition. One is an individual event and one is a team event. We need to represent Minnesota. I feel a responsibility to be back there.”
The Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) has travel and match restrictions that Lefebvre must consider when compiling his team’s schedule. Minnesota teams can only travel to bordering states. The schedule can include up to 18 events and wrestlers are limited to 36 matches before the postseason.
Lefebvre says some of his wrestlers compete in half their allotted matches in just three events, Minnesota Christmas Tournament, The Clash and Cheeshead. This allows STMA to schedule more varsity events for backups.
“Today’s kids just don’t want to wrestle too much JV, and there’s not a lot of JV competition that can challenge some of our second and third string wrestlers,” said Lefebvre. “We try to get them another 10-12 varsity matches along with their JV schedule to help them get ready for the following year. That’s part of our 18 events.”
Lefebvre, who likes to get his schedule completed before school gets out, prefers a balanced schedule of dual meets and tournaments, but believes dual meets, especially big ones, are vital to the sport’s survival.
“I think to generate fan interest, especially locally, they want to see some good dual meets. They don’t want to sit in the gym all day for a quad or tournament. They have too many things to do.”