Wild cards keep multiple aces in play
Connetquot's Sean McCabe finished third in the state wrestling tournament as a junior and was hoping for another shot at the state title this season. McCabe, who had one loss, was the top seed heading into the ultracompetitive Suffolk sectional tournament, and suffered a 3-2 loss to Sayville's unseeded Matt Leshinger in a 120-pound quarterfinal bout.
Leshinger went on to win the Suffolk crown and a berth in the state tournament in Albany next weekend. He also earned the most outstanding wrestler award for beating three of the top four seeds in his weight class.
Before 2007, Leshinger could have put McCabe in his rearview mirror and went on to compete for the state title -- against the winner of the other 10 public school sections in the state, the PSAL and the CHSAA. And the upset loss for a top wrestler like McCabe would have spelled the end of the quest for state recognition.
That is not the case anymore. The state competition committee voted to add four wild cards to each of the 15 weight classes in the state tournament in 2007. The addition of four more qualifiers from around the state, dependent upon power points based on total wins, past performance at the sectional and state levels and wins over state qualifiers opened the door for guys like McCabe to basically get a second chance.
"We've always felt we had the most competitive sectional tournament in the state," said Eastport-South Manor coach Nick Garone. "We left home so many quality wrestlers every year who could have easily earned a state place finish. This was a great move by the state committee to add the wild cards and eliminate the byes."
The state tournament went from a 13-man field in each weight class to a 16-man bracket, thus forcing every competitor to win at least four bouts to win a state title. The advent of the wild card has dramatically changed the sectional tournaments. An early loss in the sectional no longer spells ultimate doom.
Before 2007, wrestlers could come back through the losers' bracket to finish only as high as third place. The battle back to finish third was a testament to a wrestler's courage and the ability to overcome a tough loss and show character.
"When the dream of a state title died early in the sectional tournament and advancement to the state wasn't possible, most guys would proudly go for that third-place finish," East Islip coach Guy Leggio said. "Rarely would anyone give up. But with the new wild cards, the wrestle-backs became increasingly competitive because if the guy that beat you won the weight class, you'd still have a shot for a wild card in the state tournament as a third-place finisher. I love the new system."
Suffolk will send 13 wild cards to the state tournament, including McCabe (37-2) and Glenn's James Dekrone (41-3), who finished second at the state last season but lost a 6-2 heartbreaker to Brentwood's Alexis Blanco in the Suffolk 138-pound semifinals.
Dekrone qualified along with Blanco and 138-pound Suffolk champion Malik Rasheed of Longwood. Interestingly, Rasheed was a three-time state wild-card qualifier, and a two-time state place winner.
"That's the beauty of the wild card," Leggio said. "The system gave Rasheed a shot to become All State."
Rasheed will go to the state tournament this year as a county champion.
The Nassau sectional squad will send five wild cards, led by Syosset's Evan Kappatos (41-1), who was undefeated before he dropped a 5-3 decision in the 285-pound final to Dante Salkey of Uniondale.
In the first five years of the wild-card system (2007-11) Suffolk has sent a total of 54 wild cards to the state tournament with 31 place winners, 10 finalists and one champion. Nassau has had a total of 28 wild cards with 12 place winners, two finalists and no champions.
Islip's Lance Wade became Long Island's first and only wild card to win a state title in 2007, when he earned the 152-pound crown. Wade's big win supported what Suffolk coaches believed all along -- that they used to leave home some of the state's very best talent, because they lost in the sectional tournament.
The one outstanding wrestler who never had a chance to compete upstate because he couldn't win in the Suffolk final was Port Jefferson's Jim Carrera. He was a five-time Suffolk runner-up from 1977-81. Every wrestler Carrera lost to in the Suffolk finals was an all-state wrestler, including the state champs in both 1980 and 1981.
Wouldn't Carrera have embraced the new wild-card system?