Virginia Duals a local sporting fixture

HAMPTON —

Thirty-one years after a handful of local wrestling enthusiasts decided to stage a combination fund-raiser and college audition, the Virginia Duals continue chugging along.

For one weekend each January, the Hampton Coliseum becomes a kind of wrestling mecca for an event whose appeal is both local and national.

"It puts the sport of wrestling on the front page of the newspaper because it's the biggest thing going on during the weekend," Old Dominion coach Steve Martin said. "Novice wrestling fans, or somebody who's not really interested in wrestling, will show up for this.

"You've got all these good wrestlers at the high school and college level. The general sports fan who might not come to a wrestling match will come to this. That's always been the Duals' selling point."

Western Branch coach Chris Martin, a Norfolk native and former All-American at Virginia Tech, said, "The Virginia Duals, in some aspects, is as big or bigger than the state tournament."

The Duals isn't the nation's biggest wrestling event this weekend. It isn't even the biggest dual-meet format event.

That would be the National Wrestling Coaches Association/Cliff Keen National Duals in Cedar Falls, Iowa, a cauliflower ear overload of Division I, II, III, NAIA, junior college and women's competition.

The NWCA Duals have five of the top six Division I teams, and eight of the top 13, in this week's coaches' poll. It draws much of the attendant wrestling press.

But according to the graps grapevine, the event is liable to undergo significant change after this year, in terms of format, location, date, or all of the above.

Such change likely would benefit the Virginia Duals. Some national powers that routinely attend the Iowa event would be inclined to parachute into Hampton Roads, both for the competition and the recruiting contacts provided by the prep portion of the tournament.

That, in turn, could boost interest among elite high school teams that want their wrestlers to be seen by more top-shelf college coaches.

"You want to make relationships with high school coaches," ODU's Steve Martin said. "It's a good chance to make inroads with them, because they're going to be the key to getting athletes — the high school coaches, 99 percent of the time.

"For us, it's a little bit easier because we can watch several individuals wrestle at once," he continued. "There's a lot of nationally-ranked kids in this event, and we don't have to go on the road to recruit them. At the same time, those kids are watching us because we're wrestling, so it's the best of both worlds from a recruiting standpoint."

Even in conflict with the National Duals, it's not as if the Virginia Duals lacks talent. Penn State is tied for second in this week's coaches' poll and appears capable of winning the national championship.

Lehigh is ranked ninth, Michigan 15th, and Kent State and Arizona State are in the top 25. Virginia and Wyoming are among other teams receiving votes.

Individually, there are a slew of All-Americans and nationally-ranked wrestlers. For example, the consensus No. 1 guys in the country at 141 pounds (Kellen Russell, Michigan), 184 pounds (Joe LeBlanc, Wyoming), 197 pounds (Dustin Kilgore, Kent State) and Heavyweight (Zach Rey, Lehigh) will be here.

Weight classes at 125, 149 and 184 pounds appear particularly stacked. Of local interest, Virginia 174-pounder Chris Henrich is ranked No. 2 in the nation, and ODU 125-pounder James Nicholson is fourth.

On the prep side, six of the top 40 teams in the current InterMat/ESPN/Rise rankings will compete in the National High School Division, led by No. 8 Wyoming Seminary Prep from Pennsylvania. State powers Christiansburg (26) and Cox (30) also are entered.

"A lot of kids get to see what it takes to get to the next level," said Western Branch's Chris Martin (no relation to the Martin wrestling family dynasty), whose team will compete in the American Division, one step below the elite bracket. "At the high school level, you're always watching the next division up, to see what they do and how they warm up and prepare. It's a good melting pot. It helps you as a coach; it helps a lot as a wrestler."

For much of the local wrestling community, that one weekend every January is a belated Christmas gift.

"It's a great atmosphere, a great event," Chris Martin said. "Some people you only see once a year, and you see them at the Virginia Duals."

Dave Fairbank can be reached at 247-4637 or by e-mail at dfairbank@dailypress.com. For more from Fairbank, read his blog at dailypress.com/fromthetarpit
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