SEATTLE — Close your eyes. Tune out the sounds. Take a deep breath. There’s no mistaking that pungent smell: Sweat. So much sweat. Yes, this is wrestling.
Now look around, take in all the colors and the high schools they represent. Lots of purple, gold, blue and maroon.
Soon, whistles blast. Bodies slap to the mats. Coaches shout. Cheerleaders cheer. Family and fans scream in support.
But this is no ordinary wrestling tournament in any average gym. It’s Mat Classic in the massive Tacoma Dome, the state championships for boys and girls from schools of all sizes.
And Friday and Saturday, the event — considered the largest of its kind in the country — celebrates its 25th anniversary.
And area wrestlers from Wa-Hi, Waitsburg-Prescott and Pomeroy will be on hand for the event.
If you go as a first-timer, be prepared to be wowed. You might tear up when they play the resounding version of “America” sung by the late Ed Aliverti, a longtime Mat Classic voice with Olympic credentials who called wrestling “the world’s oldest and greatest sport.”
Longtime referee John DeWeber remembers the “incredible, overwhelming awesomeness” of Mat Classic I in 1989, and it has only grown since — from 18 mats to 24, from three boys classifications to five, plus girls. Mat Classic has averaged more than 22,000 fans the past five years.
The anniversary invokes a variety of vivid memories — including some embarrassing moments that first year, when naked wrestlers weighing in forced cheerleaders to cover their eyes.
Most often, though, words like “spectacular,” and “special,” and “enormous” spill out. It’s a community event for every community. A reunion of former foes now fast friends. A coaches’ band of brothers.
“It’s like Christmas, where you get to see your extended family,” longtime Enumclaw coach Lee Reichert said.
It’s everything the original Santa Claus had in mind, and more.
If Cliff Gillies was indeed Santa, he had lots of elves, and none more influential than Mike Hess.
Gillies was the WIAA executive director when the Mat Classic scheme was hatched. Hess coached at Edmonds High School and was president of the Washington State Wrestling Coaches Association (WSWCA). Both were driving forces who have since died.
Gillies was a proponent of grand high-school events, grouping them when possible — like Springfest in Tacoma — and also was a big supporter of wrestling. Movers and shakers in WSWCA started kicking a one-venue idea around in the early 1980s.
Was it a brainchild event or simply hair-brained?
Coaches originally stood on both sides of that fence. Back then, there were just three classifications, AAA, AA and A/B, and many small-school coaches resisted, preferring the smaller confines of the Moses Lake gym.
“They were concerned because they thought they were going to get lost in this thing,” said Jim Meyerhoff, one of the three original Mat Classic managers. “They didn’t know how bad they had it.”
To make sure they were well taken care of, Meyerhoff opted to oversee the A/B portion of the tournament, and the six A/B mats were originally placed in what was considered a prime position, end-to-end in front of the south seating section.
Shelly Thiel was in charge of AAA and Steve Anderson handled AA. All were athletic administrators with extensive coaching backgrounds. Meyerhoff and Thiel are readying for their 25th event. Anderson no longer lives in the area.
But even some bigger-school coaches, like Ron Seibel of Moses Lake, were leery.
“I was for the smaller (venue) because our fans were right up close and it was more exciting,” he said. “It took a while to get used to Mat Classic.”
WrestleMania, Big Mat Attack — all kinds of possible names sprang up as the event began to take shape. The WIAA ran a contest and Craig Skeesick, a former two-time champion from Moses Lake, won with Mat Classic — although he preferred another of his entries, Muscle Tussle.
“Wrestling had been in my blood since junior high, and I thought, ‘I can come up with a name,’ “ Skeesick said.
There were plenty of kinks to work out the first year. The Tacoma Dome floor was covered with plywood and unexpected gaps ran under the middle of some mats, making them lumpy.
Meyerhoff, in charge of the mats, got creative.
“We sent guys out to all of the carpet stores and went through their garbage cans to get scraps of carpet to stuff in that gutter,” he said.
Original weigh-ins weren’t well thought out. Scales were in the open the first day and wrestlers stripped down as usual, giving no thought to the cheerleaders waiting around.
“The cheerleaders are going nuts in the stands, embarrassed with nowhere to go, and the wrestlers couldn’t care less,” Lake Roosevelt coach Ralph Rise recalled. “They wanted to get through weigh-ins and go eat.”
The next day, the scales were curtained off.
Many wrestlers are wide-eyed walking into the Tacoma Dome, but Adam France said he felt almost at home as he prepared to win the 135-pound title as a senior at Marysville-Pilchuck in 1989. He had wrestled at nationals in the Uni-Dome at the University of Northern Iowa. At last, the state tournament measured up.
“It had a feeling of that magnitude,” said France, now coach at Auburn Mountainview. “It was a huge deal.”
To Scott Dennis, who won at 148 that year with fans in the stands holding a “Dennis the Menace” sign, the special part was helping Kent-Meridian capture the AAA title and the bond he made with teammates.
“I still keep in touch with some of those guys,” he said.
Brent Barnes was 28 when he guided Lake Stevens to its first state wrestling championship at Mat Classic II in 1990, his third year as coach. He remembers “just trying to keep my head above water” as a science teacher and father of two, and was naïve enough to think titles would come regularly.
It didn’t happen again until 2000, when son Burke — who originally ran around the Tacoma Dome as a 5-year-old — captured his second straight individual crown. Burke ultimately became the state’s third four-time champion, a special moment for father and son.
Lake Stevens went on to win six more team titles, including four of the past six in Class 4A, and is the favorite this weekend.
“It’s been a really, really fun ride for us over the past 25 years,” Brent said.
Pat Connors of R.A. Long was crowned the first four-time champion in 1994. But back then, seeing pals meant as much as posting pins, as he was able to catch up with guys he’d met through USA Wrestling.
“The neat thing about state was being able to see all my friends, even if they went to the smaller schools,” he said.
Connors, a corrections officer, is in his 14th season as an assistant coach to Bobby Freund at Kelso and said the memories of helping others win state titles outshine his own.
“I actually enjoy the coaching part of it more and seeing the kids going up and winning state championships,” he said.
Connors helped Brandon Sitch join the four-time club in 2006, but prefers to deflect attention to the many mentors he’s had.
When girls wrestling became a sanctioned state tournament sport in 2007, Kelso’s Alisha Beach dreamed of winning four state titles.
“It was kind of overwhelming at first,” she said of her first trip to the Tacoma Dome. “It gave me the chills. It was a phenomenal experience.”
Beach won that year and twice more — including a three-overtime thriller her senior year — but lost in the semifinals as a sophomore. Sheridan McDonald of Kiona-Benton became the first four-time female champion in 2011.
Among the constants at Mat Classic are Mel and Vicki Olson, now in their 50th year of broadcasting Moses Lake High School sports on the radio. Mel, 84, is the voice on KBSN and Vicki, 85, the invaluable assistant who helps feed him information. They’ve been married 63 years.
Mel is quick to lament the fact they have not been able to broadcast every Mat Classic, missing the first and third. But he has plenty of memories from the others, like the time current coach Jaime Garza won a state title, or when the large Zamora clan finally got a champion, Peter, ending a string of family disappointments.
“One of the brothers said, ‘Now we can stop having kids,’ “ Mel recalls.
Vicki, who has competed in 25 national bowling tournaments, says she enjoys reuniting with wrestling folks each year and meeting new ones, and is particularly fond of the parade of champions as well as award ceremonies. She still gets a tear in her eye when they play Aliverti’s “America.”
Tears are common at the Tacoma Dome, tears of elation and deflation. Big boys do sometimes cry, after all their hard work and sacrifices.
You’ll see plenty of fist-pumps and an occasional back-flip. Post-match handshakes — with the opponent and opposing coaches — are protocol, but the bear hugs are priceless.
There’s something special about wrestling, those who’ve worn the singlet can attest. And Mat Classic is their fitting tribute.