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The Journal Gazette

Friday, December 29, 2017 1:00 am

32-team Smith Classic beckons

Talent of wrestlers amazes area coaches

Josh Patterson | For The Journal Gazette

If you go

What: 40th annual Al Smith Classic

When: Today and Saturday. Wrestling starts at 10 a.m. today, continues at 9 a.m. Saturday, with finals scheduled for 1:30 p.m.

Where: Mishawaka High School, 1202 Lincolnway E., Mishawaka

Cost: $10 for adults, $5 for children 12 and under for single day passes, available both days at the school

Broadcast: Available on CavemenSports.com, brackets and live scoring available at www.trackwrestling.com

Area schools competing: Bellmont, Carroll, Garrett, Warsaw

 

The name Al Smith may not mean a whole lot to most people. But when Garrett wrestling coach Nick Kraus was asked to play the word association game with that name, here's how he responded:

• Prestigious

• Meatgrinder

• Best of the best

• Midseason state

And with good reason. The Al Smith Classic, a 32-team wrestling tournament named for the longtime Mishawaka coach scheduled for today and Saturday, stands as possibly the best tournament outside of the IHSAA state finals.

Second-ranked Indianapolis Cathedral headlines a field containing seven of the top 20-ranked teams according to IndianaMat.com, along with Prairie Heights, which won the Class 1A championship at the IHSWCA Team State Duals last weekend. Action takes place in two gymnasiums today, when the 32 competitors in each of 14 weight classes get pared to eight, who then return Saturday to battle for final placing.

Coming off a four-point defeat in the Class 2A championship match at Team State, the Railroaders are seeking to improve on last year's 12th-place performance at the Al Smith. But one thing Kraus knows from experience – both as a coach and as a competitor – every wrestler must step onto the mat ready to battle.

“It lets them know where they need to be,” Kraus said. “We have different levels of kids. Some are not ready for that level of competition, but it would be completely unfair to our stud kids if they never saw that level of competition.

“You know that if you place there, you're potentially good enough to go to state. You're one of those guys that's in the running.”

Kraus stands as one of just three wrestlers from New Prairie to place in the top eight at the Al Smith, finishing fifth at 171 pounds in 2005 – the same year he placed third in the state finals. As Kraus explained, it's not uncommon to see wrestlers place higher at state than at Mishawaka.

In 2014, for instance, Garrett's Bo Davis earned the top overall seed in his weight class, only to finish the tournament 1-2 and get eliminated the first day. That same season, Davis qualified for the state finals, then defeated the Al Smith champion on his way to taking third in the state.

“We should have a couple kids in the running for a title,” Kraus said. “They know that it's a measuring stick, but they also know it's not the be-all, end-all of the season.”

Garrett started attending the event in 2011, making the Railroaders a relatively new Al Smith entrant. Conversely, Bellmont has made the trek to Mishawaka every year since 1982.

A long-standing friendship between Smith and former Braves coach Denny Hays paved the way for Bellmont to enter the tournament initially. Not coincidentally, the Braves won back-to-back state titles in 1987 and '88.

“That connection got us going,” Bellmont coach Paul Gunsett said. “It makes you a better wrestler. It's hard-nosed and it teaches you a lot of skills. It's an opportunity to see how good you are, a good opportunity for them to compete. Win, lose or draw, you're competing against the best teams trying to achieve what people are always wanting to achieve – a state title.”