Once it finally got going, the Alaska School Activities Association's Class 4A state wrestling championship moved smoothly this past weekend at Ketchikan High School's Clarke Cochrane Gymnasium.
Sure, there were a few things that could have been improved - such as cutting down on some of the lengthy pre-match introductions that made it so the championship finals didn't end until well after 11 p.m. But most of the tournament's real problems had to do with uncontrollable events, namely Thursday's fog and the out-of-order navigational aid at Ketchikan's airport that delayed the tournament a day.
There was a lot of good wrestling, and a very vocal and partisan Ketchikan crowd made this one of the most lively state tournaments in years.
For me, though, the thing I will remember most about this tournament had nothing to do with the wrestling. And that's unfortunate.
What I'll remember most of all are the examples of how out of touch the people in some of Alaska's road-belt communities, especially Anchorage, have become about what teams in the rest of the state have to deal with in terms of travel and fund-raising just so they can compete.
This was the first ASAA-sponsored state tournament to take place in Southeast Alaska in more than a decade, and the first state event in Ketchikan since the 1984 basketball tournament. The last time a state wrestling tournament was in Southeast Alaska was 1981.
In other words, it was Southeast Alaska's turn to host a tournament.
But the uproar from the road-belt communities started even before Ketchikan's bid was approved by ASAA last October. Ketchikan was the only community to make a timely bid to host the state wrestling tournament, but when some of the road-belt folks found out there were no other bids they hurriedly submitted bids from Kodiak and Anchorage Christian Schools (a Class 3A school) to compete with Ketchikan.
ASAA awarded the bid to Ketchikan, mainly because of a guaranteed $7,000 profit - which was three times more what recent state tournaments in Fairbanks earned.
After ASAA gave the tournament to Ketchikan, there were several attempts to sabotage things. Some people said recent outbreaks of Norwalk-like virus made Ketchikan unsafe. Others complained about the weather and others about the high cost of getting to Ketchikan.
Some of the complaints were more legitimate than others, but none of them warranted taking the tournament away from Ketchikan.
The last-minute attempt to steal the tournament away from Ketchikan - when fog delayed the Anchorage School District's chartered flight to Ketchikan and Anchorage school officials told their wrestlers and their families the tournament was being relocated to Bartlett High School and would take place on Monday and Tuesday - was totally uncalled for.
What was especially galling about the Anchorage attempt to steal the tournament was what it did to some Anchorage parents, who canceled their plane reservations then had to rebook them when they found out the tournament was still a go in Ketchikan.
Weather delays can happen anywhere. I was on an Anchorage-to-Seattle flight several years ago that was diverted to Denver because of fog in Seattle. It took me more than 27 hours of running from ticket counter to ticket counter around Stapleton Airport before I finally got a standby ticket on a flight to my intended destination of Portland, Ore. My luggage took another day to catch up to me.
To be honest, most of the complaints about the state wrestling tournament taking place in Ketchikan came from parents, not athletes or coaches. In fact, some of the coaches found some value in the fog delays, which scattered wrestling teams from Anchorage to Seattle when planes couldn't land in Ketchikan for much of Thursday.
"We had kids who'd never been to Seattle," Lathrop coach Tom Ritchie Sr. said. "You've got to go with the flow and be as positive as you can. It was a situation that was out of anybody's control."
"They'll remember flying for 2 1/2 days," Kodiak coach Pat Costello said of his team's journey, which featured overnight stays in Seattle and Juneau in addition to a lot of flying up and down Alaska's Panhandle. "We've had fly-bys before, but never like this. Our kids are in pretty good spirits. This is the right place for the tournament to be. It's nice to have it in Southeast where the wrestlers will be appreciated."
During the tournament, I was updating my bracket sheets when one Anchorage parent was griping about the high cost of getting to Ketchikan. I tried to tell him that teams in Southeast Alaska are always having to foot the bill to games and tournaments, since most of them are held in Anchorage or Fairbanks and most Southeast teams have to pay to get teams to come to town.
His response, "But they choose to live down here," angered me. With that kind of thinking, why live in Alaska? There's a heck of a lot more to this state than what's on the main road system. In fact, I don't think anybody really gets to know Alaska until they get off the road system.
I grew up in Anchorage and competed on several sports teams at Bartlett High School, and I never had a road trip that went farther than the 1979 state cross-country running meet at Barry's Resort between Palmer and Wasilla. Our football team never left Anchorage, and the same held true for our track and swim teams.
The only reason I got to see much of Alaska was because I played viola in the Anchorage Youth Symphony, and the 80-piece orchestra made an annual tour of Southeast Alaska with side trips to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and Terrace, British Columbia.
I still treasure some of my memories from those trips - riding the Yukon and White Pass Railroad from Whitehorse to Skagway, late-night poker games on the ferry, running around in Northway and Tok with no jacket on when it's 60-below, playing concerts in Sitka's Centennial Hall while being able to watch the fishing boats leave the nearby harbor.
In some ways I think those trips gave me the courage later in life to take jobs in Bethel and Barrow, and to spend much of 1984 going to school in Scotland. While I was in Ketchikan this weekend I read a magazine story that used the German term Reisen bildet, which means, "Travel educates." I feel that is definitely true.
"It's something we deal with," Homer coach Chris Perk said of the weather problems. "We're here, no worries. We're excited to be here. We tell the kids to go out for activities and we'll take you places you'll have to spend a lot of money to get to when you're adults. On a trip like this you can find out who can deal with adversity."
Several years ago, ASAA used to regularly rotate its state tournaments around Alaska. But that stopped about 1992, after Sitka hosted the Class 4A state basketball tournament and people complained about the cost and lack of hotel rooms. The state swim meet hasn't left Anchorage since Bartlett's swim pool was built in the mid-1980s and I can't remember a state volleyball tournament leaving Anchorage.
Maybe it's time to start the rotation again. If state Little League tournaments can take place on Southeast's dirt fields and Alaska's USA Swimming state club team championships can be held in Southeast, why can't high school state events?
A regular statewide rotation of a few selected state high school events - with tournament locations announced years in advance so people can plan their travel - would go a long way toward mending the growing rift between the road-belt teams and those off the road system. There's no reason why an occasional state tournament can't take place in Southeast Alaska more than once every 10 to 12 years.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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