Dave Dean remembers back to the early days of the Michigan Youth Wrestling Association (MYWA). He recalls numerous challenges, in areas ranging from recruiting participants and leaders to coexisting with other wrestling organizations. One memory that is hard to shake is of one of the first tournaments, which he said was a “total nightmare.”
“People were calling me everything in the book,” Dean said. “The negativity was intense and I felt at that time that the people there would never have anything to do with me or MYWA again. But what was amazing is that people did come back. They believed in our mission of growing the sport within our state and we have seen our vision come alive.”
Today, over a decade later, MYWA is over 10,000 members strong and has stayed true to building and growing wrestling in Michigan from the grassroots level by investing in programs at the youth, high school and college levels. Dean, the State President of MYWA, is proud that the organization was instrumental in saving a college program and creating another while providing assistance to nearly all of the state’s collegiate teams. In addition, the organization sends hundreds of youth and high school wrestlers to national events and also offers a novice division that allows beginners to get their start in the sport. On the other end of the spectrum, MYWA began supporting the state’s Olympic hopefuls this year to allow them to train at the highest level. The key, according to Dean, is that the financial resources are kept within the state.
MYWA’s success served as the model for the NUWAY organization, which has started similar programs in 18 states over the past several years, including in the Empire State (NYWAY).
As NYWAY moves toward its first anniversary this summer, State President Clint Wattenberg finds Dean’s experiences instructive. When talking about objectives, he reiterates the messages of growing and developing wrestling in New York by investing in and providing competitive opportunities for wrestlers at all levels.
In about nine months, NYWAY membership has grown to over 3300. (Registration is $15/year for individuals and $100/year for clubs). A regional model has taken shape, with tournaments being held in each of the regions. In fact, over the next few weekends, the four top finishers in each of the four regional tournaments (and the Last Chance Qualifier) will advance to the first NYWAY state championships on March 25 on the campus of Cornell University.
“To be honest, New York has had a fantastic first year,” Dean said. “They’ve done quite a number of things. They have a regional base structure that connects at a state level. They also have sent groups of kids into other states, such as California and Michigan, to get exposure to great competition. And they have brought kids in from other states to compete in New York.”
Wattenberg is the first to admit, however, that there have been some growing pains and some legitimate criticism over the past few months.
A recent tournament in Whitney Point provided him with an experience similar to the one Dean had years ago.
“Logistics have been a challenge at times, and that was an example,” Wattenberg said. “We tried to run a tournament operating system that NUWAY uses across the country and although I was trained on it, things didn’t work out as planned. I didn’t understand the contingency plan so it was like I jumped in without a lifejacket and nearly drowned.”
Wattenberg said that there were issues with the registration system, which was supposed to shut off at 350 entrants but didn’t, contributing to the confusion.
“The frustration was justified,” he said. “What people should know is that we’re working to address all the issues. For the regional qualifiers and state championships we will be using established methods that people on the ground have used frequently in the past while we fully work out the issues we faced.”
In addition to logistics, Wattenberg mentioned some other areas of focus for improvement. Putting together a consistent set of policies and procedures that best meet the needs of the state is one priority.
“We have a lot of really excited and passionate people – and all of us are volunteers,” he said. “Sometimes we haven’t had everyone seeing things the same way. I know there have been some people frustrated when there isn’t a single voice about issues such as whether seventh or eighth graders with varsity experience can participate or whether graduating seniors can compete in our high school division. We are working to form a more uniform message for our public, and hope to use our website and Facebook to disseminate these messages.”
Additionally, Wattenberg is excited about implementing a novice division for next season.
“A lot of the focus in the sport is always on the top kids and getting them experiences to compete within the state but also regionally and nationally,” he said. “But to build a base in this sport we want to make sure there are good opportunities for new wrestlers too. Increasing the numbers of youth wrestlers is so important to the survival of the sport at the middle school and high school level. Take local Lansing High School as an example. They are competing at such a high level, finishing second in the state this year, but they are not able to field a full team. They even had their modified program dropped last year. In my view, the way you make a program like that successful and sustainable over the years is by increasing the numbers in the wrestling room.”
Wattenberg also mentioned wanting to increase the organization’s footprint in the downstate portions of New York.
As the end of the first NYWAY season approaches, Wattenberg tried to put the organization’s current status in perspective.
“This year we’ve worked on trying to build a good foundation,” Wattenberg said. “We know we have a lot of work to do but we have some amazing people to help do it. Others have had ideas on how to best serve New York State Wrestling, but this organization has a different perspective on what it means to support the sport and how to go about it. A big point of emphasis for us is trying to support struggling programs and develop new ones. We are focused on keeping any profits from our events and membership in state to support the growth of New York State wrestling.”
In order to do this, he asks for those passionate about the sport of wrestling to take part.
“For those who are reluctant, I ask that you just take a look and give us a try,” he said. “For those who have great ideas and enthusiasm in creating something special, please get more involved. For those who are critical, please reach out, voice your concerns and help contribute to building New York wrestling.”
“The mission for NYWAY is to be a support system for the entire state,” Dean added. “It’s about investing in and empowering New York people and programs. We made it happen in Michigan and New York has the leadership and the love of the sport. I think they’re off to a good start.”
NYWAY Regional Qualifier Information:
Capital Region: March 3, Hoosick Falls High School, 9 a.m.
Central Region: March 11, Canastota High School, 9 a.m.
Northern Region: March 11, Indian River Middle School, 9 a.m.
Western Region: March 11, Lockport High School, 9 a.m.
Last Chance Qualifier: Owego Free Academy