KETCHIKAN - Last October, Rick Collins got the gift he had desired most of all in seven years as head wrestling coach at Ketchikan High School - hosting the state championship.
Then he reluctantly took the role of Alaska wrestling's little kid on the block, watching as the state's big boys desperately tried to take it away.
When the Alaska School Activities Association awarded Ketchikan the 2003 state 4A wrestling tournament, the first in school history, Collins expected some backlash. What he didn't expect was the lengths to which fans and coaches from Anchorage and Fairbanks would go to convince ASAA to deny Ketchikan its long-awaited chance to host the big show.
The complaints varied from reasonable to ridiculous: The travel expenses were far too high, and only a limited amount of fans would travel all the way to Southeast. There weren't enough hotels in Ketchikan. There weren't enough fire exits in Clarke Cochrane Gymnasium. In December, a rumor spread that Ketchikan's exposure to a Norwalk-like virus had deemed the area unsafe.
"It was goofy stuff," Collins said. "They acted like we were a leper colony down here."
A number of nay-sayers threatened a boycott of the event.
Amid all the fuss about Southeast's first state tournament since the 1991 basketball tournament in Sitka, no other schools bothered to make a bid before ASAA's deadline. Both Kodiak High School and Anchorage Christian Schools put in bids too late to be considered.
In the weeks following the decision, ASAA director of special events John Andrews dealt with a number of complaints about the travel expenses involved with a tournament held in Southeast.
According to Andrews, travel expenses are an inevitable aspect of planning sporting events in a state the size of Alaska.
"We realize that a number of schools will have to fly to these events, regardless of where its held," Andrews said. "We've held these events in Fairbanks, and even kids from Anchorage had to fly instead of drive.
"But when the board of directors gets together, our primary concern is to make sure that the site for the culminating event of the sport can make that event special for the athletes, coaches and fans. We were confident that Ketchikan could host an outstanding event," he said.
Part of ASAA's confidence in Ketchikan came from one of Collins' best selling points: a $7,000 guaranteed profit. ASAA has struggled to post similar profits for wrestling tournaments, despite holding the event at larger arenas with higher seating capacities.
The 2002 event, held at Fairbanks' Carlson Center, generated a profit of $2,400 after ASAA paid $12,500 to rent the 6,500-seat venue, according to Andrews. There is no cost to use Cochrane Gymnasium.
Supporters of the Lathrop High School wrestling team in Fairbanks were among the first to threaten a boycott, which Lathrop coach Tom Ritchie termed "ridiculous."
"But obviously I understand why our parents and fans are upset," Ritchie said. "There are so many people who simply can't come that way to see the tournament. This is the climax of our year, and so many parents who have invested so much of their time aren't going to see the final tournament, and that's very disappointing."
Ketchikan athletic director Ed Willburn said there's a bias against Southeast schools.
"They don't treat us poorly, but they kind of think of us a part of a different state," he said. "But if we were in the same position, we'd probably feel the same way, simply because of the travel costs.
"Look at our situation with basketball. I can't get a team down here to play us unless we pay them a couple thousand dollars."
For Collins, who has seen his wrestlers raise upward of $13,000 annually to make the long trip upstate, it was obvious that other coaches were finally experiencing the obstacles Ketchikan faces each year.
"What they don't realize is that we raise the money to travel every year," Collins said. "There is a mentality among the road system schools that says, 'You come to us.' And the honest truth is that people don't realize wrestling in Southeast exists."
Collins expects the state tournament to boost wrestling in Ketchikan.
"This is a chance for kids to see the sport at a level of which they've never seen it because its always been out of their reach," he said. "We'll have fourth-graders out there watching the state tournament and hopefully saying, 'That's something I want to do.' And that's the best thing our sport can hope for."
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