USA Wrestling Guest Blog: 20 years...

Guest Blog: 20 years of Reno Tournament of Champions

Dec. 18, 2014, 12:11 p.m. (ET)

Photo of Reno Tournament of Champions medals by John Sachs,

Blog by Ross Aguiar

In 1993, I was at the Sierra Nevada Classic when I met coach John Smith. John was there putting on a clinic and he was in his first year as Oklahoma State's head wrestling coach. I loved wrestling and thought I knew everything about the sport. I coached, I volunteered every weekend and helped start kids programs all over Northern Nevada. After meeting John, he invited me to the come to Oklahoma State to watch a dual meet between OSU and Iowa. When he invited me he told me that even though I was involved in wrestling I really did not know wrestling. I really did not understand what he meant by this comment but let it go and accepted his offer.

This dual meet was one for the history books. The legendary Dan Gable was the head coach for the Iowa Hawkeyes and had been for the last 18 years by this time. John had just won his second gold medal at the Olympics and was the premier and most popular wrestling personality in the country at that time. It was an amazing match with a lot of excitement and a huge argument between these two Icons of wrestling and a packed house to witness it all. I had never seen so many people at a wrestling event in my life. It was louder than any basketball game I had ever been to.

I remember sitting there listening to the announcer. He was so eloquent. His voice would boom but you could hear every word as it was so smooth. This announcer sounded like he should be in Madison Square Garden and not in Stillwater, Okla., announcing wrestling matches. I was so impressed by the entire event that I totally fell in love with wrestling all over again and I knew exactly what John was talking about when he said I did not really know wrestling. Something moved me that night to do more to want to make wrestling bigger in the west to show people what a great sport this could be. It was at that time I said to myself I am going to create a national high school tournament unlike any other and have it with a Division 1 college tournament in Reno, Nev.

The first thing I did after that match was to introduce myself to the announcer, Don Blasingame. I told him about the tournament idea and it was going to be different than any other high school event in the country. With his voice and talent at calling wrestling matches he was an instrumental piece to what will be a huge national event. At that time there was nothing like this In the country. To my surprise, Don agreed to announce the event and has been an amazing ambassador of the Reno Tournament of Champions for the last 20 years. This will be Don’s last tournament he will call as he has been retired for the last year. He is coming back to complete his 20th year with us. Please show him your appreciation during the event.

The following day after the amazing dual meet, I met with Coach Smith and told him about my idea. He loved it and wanted to help. He put me in touch with Tom Sculley from Brute Adidas at the time to start selling sponsorships and he made phone calls to other Division 1 schools to see if they would compete in Reno in December of 1996. Tom Sculley was amazing. He supported the idea from the start and has been a part of our event for the last 20 years. Tom has recently started his own business with his partner Tim Gardner called Outer Circle and they are the new USA rep for Adidas wrestling. Outer Circle and Adidas are here this year as one of our featured sponsors. Tom has not only been a great supporter of this event he has become a great friend also.

I left Stillwater with a new love for wrestling and anxiety of what was about to happen. I came back to Reno so excited and told three people (whom I thought really knew wrestling) about my idea. They were not so excited. They told me that it could not be done that the National Federation of High School Athletics would not allow it and I should just forget about it. I could not forget about it. I called the NFHSA explained my idea to them and they told me I could do it if I was sanctioned by them. I was helping out at Wooster High School and was friends with Coach Tom Bailey and Coach Eric Bye. I told them about the idea and they were all in.

That year they went to a new tournament at Walsh Jesuit in Ohio called the Iron Man. It was similar except it was a dual meet event. They came back from that event very excited and full of the sense we could accomplish this. Eric Bye then introduced me to Jack Dolan, a CPA in Reno who wrestled at Reno high and in college at Cal State Fullerton. Jack had great business sense and was a natural born leader. Jack loved the idea from the start and jumped in with both feet. The team was almost complete. We needed one more person to make this work. Someone to run the officials. This is a big job and we needed someone that could attract national-caliber type refs from all over the country. This would truly make this a national event. I asked the best official in the State of Nevada, Dave Nevin, to help out with this. He accepted and it turned out to be an exceptional find. Dave not only took control of all the officiating but he helped with every aspect of the event from set up to break down. Dave was truly an amazing partner and along with his wife, Mary, helped to organize this event for our first 13 years. We were set. Now all we needed was the best (32) teams in the country and the best (4) colleges our dual meet tournament.

Eric and Tom solicited the help of the Iron Man Tournament director Larry Chaffin to recruit the very best high schools in the country. He did an amazing job getting the top 22 teams in the country to come and compete in this first event. I worked on the college event and with the help of Coach John Smith we were able to get top ranked teams in Nebraska, Oregon State, Arizona State and Oklahoma State. All of them were ranked in the top 15 of the country’s best teams that year. We were set. Everything was in place for our first event January 4-6, 1996. But wait! We forget a very important piece of the puzzle. Marketing and advertising. We had no idea what to do. Dave Nevin found the person that would not only save us but make us look like were a true national caliber event.

Marnie Mattice not only jumped in and created the posters, tickets and program. She also set everything up, had it printed and has been a part of this event ever since. She is truly a great advocate and friend to the Reno Tournament of Champions. Every year she comes up with an amazing work of art to show case this event.

Our first event was amazing. So much drama so much excitement. The caliber of athletes at that event was amazing and has not been matched since. Some of the names of the athletes who competed in that first event on the high school level were Cael Sanderson, Cody Sanderson, Cole Sanderson, Rocky Smart, Jamarr Billman, Josh Holiday, Joe Heskett, Rusty Cook, Zach Thompson, Jeff Knupp, Jared Lawrence, Sonny Marchette, Michael Lightner, Brett Lawrence, Adam Tirapelle, Yoshi Nakamura, Ty Wilcox, Victor Veda, Gabe McMahon, Jason Silverstien, and many more. These athletes represent several NCAA Division I and II National Champions and several others were champions on the International and Olympic level.

Cael Sanderson went onto to become the greatest wrestler of all time. He placed third in this event in his junior year.

If the individuals in this first event were that good, then the teams were even better. That year we had the top 22 high school teams in the country. No one else had ever done this before. The thought of high school kids taking airplanes instead buses to compete was unthinkable at that time. Now it is common place in all sports.

That year, to everyone surprise, Easton High School won our first event. But what was even more surprising was Blair Academy (a perennial power in high school wrestling and a private school) took fourth that year. St. Edwards High School in Ohio (another national power house) placed seventh. That was a huge surprise and really started the national conversation on who was the nation’s best high school wrestling team. Walsh was second, Choctaw (OK) was third, Calvary Chapel was fifth, Midwest City (OK). was eighth, Independence Ca. was ninth, and little Palmer, Alaska was 10th. This was an amazing event. To this day, it is still considered to be the “Toughest High School Tournament Ever”.

We are very proud of that first event. I am sure you can see why now.

Since that initial event, we have had our share of ups and downs. In 1997, we had a flood and only 19 teams could make it to the event due to bad weather and cancellations of many flights. The amazing thing about that year was that 19 teams made it. These teams did things that were mind boggling. They took flights to air ports ten hours away from Reno and rented cars and drove over the Sierras in one of the worst storms in a decade. Their perseverance and can-do attitude was amazing and so much appreciated. We did have an event that year and Blair did win it. By the way, Blair and St. Edwards have not finished lower than second at any tournament since. In the last 19 years we have changed facilities twice.

We are now in the wonderful downtown convention center and have been for the last (8) years. Over the years we have seen 150 volunteers each year that help us run this event. We have seen 48 officials each year and some of them like Dave Nevin, Les Rasmussen, Gregg Ortega and a few more have been here every single year.

We are most proud to say that Easton High School has been here every year. We say this because it is not easy to travel with 20 people (and 15 of them kids) across the country. They have to raise thousands of dollars and plan a year in advance to make this happen. This is a huge undertaking for a coach and his staff of two very important people. Head Coach Steven Powell and his assistant Barry Snyder along with his head booster Ray Ferraro spend all year raising money, shopping flights, and booking hotel rooms. We thank them for their efforts. Easton has won this event 7 times.

Five years ago we added Flo Wrestling to video and air our event live on the Internet. At the time they were a small company and just getting started. Today they are the voice of the wrestling world for every level. They are wonderful and extremely good at what they do. We truly appreciate their work and look forward to having them here each year.

The last piece of this puzzle that has kept us in business for the last 20 years is our relationship with the Eldorado and the Silver Legacy hotels. Glenn Carano, owner and Director of the Silver Legacy and Eldorado, was the very first person to listen to me about this idea. At the time the Silver Legacy was just being built and I remember him giving me a tour of the place while under construction while we talked. Glenn supported that first event and has been a staunched supporter of this event since. We would not be here without his support.

This event was created to showcase the sport of wrestling on the high school and college level. We wanted to not only do this for the wrestling fans but we wanted to attract sports fans from all other sports at well. We firmly believed that we needed to make a wrestling tournament an “event” and not just a place where they throw down some mats and have a tournament. We wanted it to look and feel like a national championship and when these kids walked in they would feel the same way. We feel that we have done that over the last 19 tournaments. We could not have done it without out the athletes, families, fans and volunteers. We thank each and every one of you for supporting this event over the years. We will celebrate this milestone as we host our 20th event in 19 years. Then we will clean up, pack everything up and start planning for our next 20 tournaments.

We the Board of Directors of the Reno Tournament of Champions would like to recognize the Pioneering Spirit of the people who help to get this event started and continue to support it to this day.

Tom Bailey
Eric Bye
Coach John Smith
Dave Nevin
Don Blasingame
Marnie Mattice
Glenn Carano
Easton High School
Jack Dolan
Ross Aguiar

Thank you all for your support and continued participation.

Note: Just for clarification: The tournament started in 1996. This is our 20th event because we had a tournament in January of 1997 and another one in December of 1997.