While the term, "wild card," has long drawn the ire of sports fans around the country - especially in a sport such as baseball - because of its apparent dilution of the quality of play and competition, one place that recognizes just how much a wild card can bring to the table is New York State Public High School Athletic Association wrestling - particularly in the state tournament.
"The first year (that wild cards were included in the state championship) there was some skepticism," Fredonia coach Alex Conti explained. "But the next thing you know, there were two who made the finals and one state champ. The wild card has given value to the tournament, and has made it legit from the first match to the last. There are no more easy, walk-in-the-park matches at any point. Wild cards have made sure that there is a tough match every time a wrestler steps onto the mat."
While seven area wrestlers - Dylan Lundmark at 99 pounds from Southwestern, Dakota Gardner at 120 from Fredonia, Jude Gardner at 138 from Fredonia, Ben Haas at 152 from Salamanca, Zach Buckley at 160 from Fredonia, Nick Mitchell at 170 from Frewsburg and John Nickerson at 195 from Maple Grove - were champions in last weekend's Section 6 Division II state qualifier and earned a place in the upcoming state tournament to be held at the Times Union Center in Albany on Feb. 24 and 25, another seven, by virtue of their outstanding body of work this season - and their performance at the qualifier - were given wild-card bids.
Of the group, five have a guaranteed spot in the state tournament. They are Pat McCarthy of Fredonia, who finished second in the state qualifier when he lost to Lewiston-Porter's Ryan Kromer, 5-1, Emory Rowe of Ripley at 126, Kevin Strong, who dropped a hard-fought contest in overtime at 132 to Tom Page of Eden, Derek Wise of Cassadaga Valley, who fell in the 285-pound final, and Jacob Gullo of Jamestown at 170 pounds.
The final two, Jesse Anderson (145 ) and Kyle Blake (99), both of Falconer, were selected wild card alternates, and could get a shot at a state title should another wrestler from their class be unable to make the trip or unable to make weight.
In addition to the 14 from the area who will be headed to the state tournament, an additional seven from Section 6 were selected as wild cards, bringing the grand total to a whopping 21 wrestlers.
The number tops last year's total - which was the most of any section in the state - by two, and as Southwestern coach Mark Hetrick noted last week after the qualifier, the group looks to be one of the most talented in recent memory.
"I would have to agree (with Hetrick)," Conti said. "I think we will have the capability to have a number of sectional champions and wild cards become state finalists and state champions."
In fact, Section 6 wrestlers are so strong this season that a number could be facing off against some familiar faces in the finals.
"I'm looking at 170 pounds, where Marcus (Dwailebee of Olean) and Nick Mitchell could very possibly meet each other in the state final (Mitchell edged Dwailebee, 6-4, in the sectional championship)." Conti said. "Both are very capable of becoming state finalists."
He added, "And Kevin Strong, who is the No. 1 wild card (for his class) and Page are both strong wrestlers. So to see those two in the finals would not surprise me in the least."
Before they become opponents on the mat once again next weekend, however, the group has spent much of the past week practicing together at Salamanca Central School.
And Conti likes what he sees.
"They're an exciting group," he said. "I hope that they go out and do their jobs. They know what is expected and what is needed of them (to win), so all they'll have to do is show up and wrestle."