After another season of significant success, the Juneau-Douglas High School wrestling team should be thinking of how to improve on its third-place team finish at the fall-season state tournament that featured two individual champions.
Instead, the Crimson Bears will be wondering about how they can get through another season in the newest season format set forth by the Alaska School Activities Association.
With the split-season format, Juneau is the largest school in the fall season, which begins in late September and ends in early December. The rest of the state's larger schools wrestle in the spring season that starts in middle January and goes through April.
The split season has made Alaska wrestling a laughing stock in national wrestling circles. It seems ridiculous that a state with such a small population of wrestlers would dilute the talent even more by splitting the season.
However, the ASAA seems to have no intention of changing the current format, leaving Juneau only one option: Move to the spring season.
Juneau head wrestling coach Bob Mahon says his team has always had the option of moving to the spring, but opted to fall into line with the rest of Southeast and wrestle in the spring.
"The rest of the Southeast looks for Juneau to lead the way," Mahon said. "I've been told that Juneau sets the standard for Southeast."
Juneau-Douglas High School administration has been hesitant on moving wrestling to the spring season, claiming that it will hurt the rest of the Southeast wrestling programs if they compete without Juneau.
But the time has come to look out for No. 1 and if Juneau does set the standard for Southeast, then who's to say that the larger Southeast schools wouldn't follow Juneau wrestling to the spring season. Most likely, Ketchikan and Sitka would, leaving behind Petersburg and the rest of the smaller schools to toil in the fall season.
Lets look at why the fall season does not work for Juneau.
First, the season overlaps with football season and the other fall sports. If the Crimson Bears continue their trend of reaching the playoffs, athletes who participate in both football and wrestling may not be able get on the wrestling mat until late October. That's a month into a wrestling season that as is barely lasts longer than two months.
"Right now after football, the kids are not ready to wrestle," Mahon said. "They're also not in the right mind frame. If we go to spring, the kids will be on a year-round schedule and that's what the kids need to be on -- a schedule through the year."
Second, the end of wrestling season butts heads with the beginning of basketball season. Although there are currently no Juneau wrestlers who play high school hoops, there is always a possibility of a conflict in the future.
Third, the fall season is the worst time for college coaches to recruit with the start their own seasons just getting started when Alaska's state tournament is underway. This hurts the student-athletes' chances to be seen by these college coaches.
"There used to be at least 15 college coaches at the state tournament before they split it up," Mahon said. "At this year's tournament, there was one."
Just last week, a Michigan judge ruled that the Michigan high school girls basketball and volleyball seasons, which are one of the few states that plays basketball in the fall and volleyball in the winter, must be changed partly due to the fact that it hurts college recruiting. Is this not the same thing that has happened to Alaska high school wrestling?
Fourth, the fall season state wrestling tournament's talent is so diluted that wrestlers with losing records do not even have to wrestle to qualify for the 32-slot brackets.
"Making it to state is something that should be earned," Mahon said. "They've made it too easy for some of these kids to qualify for state."
The reason why the ASAA split the season's was to keep wrestling alive in the smaller schools. The reasoning was that kids that wrestled would also be able to play basketball. But according to Petersburg head wrestling coach Bob Schwartz, this idea has backfired.
"Our basketball coaches told their players that if they wrestled they would be cut from the basketball team," Schwartz said. "It's like they're trying to get rid of wrestling. I don't know how much longer we can go on like this."
The main drawback for going to the fall season will be added travel expenses and the loss of Southeast rivals if they decide to stay put. However, the team pays for all of its travel expenses anyway, and Juneau could still host a big tournament, which according to Mahon, could draw schools from the Lower 48 as well as many Alaska schools.
Unless a change is made in the season, Mahon said he will not return as head coach next year. This will definitely hurt the program Mahon has built over the past eight years and possibly the end of JDHS wrestling altogether.
"I coach because I love the sport," Mahon said. "There are coaches who are not recognized for the support and time they give. It takes time to build a program like this. An old coach told me that when you decide to coach, you do it for the kids. If they go to January where it belongs, I'll stay. But I can't be part of a program where it hurts the kids. I think the school board, parents and the school should sit down and come to a decision, not just the school."
Jeff Kasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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