By Pam Shebest
Special for Second Half
KALAMAZOO — Thirty-two teams, more than 9,000 spectators and 60 to 75 volunteers will converge at Wings Event Center this weekend for the MHSAA Team Wrestling Finals.
Volunteers gathered at the venue Thursday, setting up two of the three arenas and making sure everything was in working order in preparation for Friday’s Quarterfinals and Saturday’s Semifinals and Finals.
And tournament director Mike Garvey – who before retiring last year served as an athletic director for more than two decades at four area high schools, plus led Lawton to the Class D wrestling title in 1990 – can rattle off the details like a tour guide.
“There are 10 warm-up mats in ‘The Valley,’” Garvey pointed out Thursday. “That’s where the teams also weigh in.
“We have four registered MHSAA referees who are going to inspect the kids for skin diseases, which they always do for wrestlers, and weigh them in.
“There’s a doctor who has volunteered because if a referee says no … we say ‘Go see the doc,’ which is nice.”
And that's just the start of the setup that comes with hosting one of the MHSAA’s most popular championship showcases.
The tournament is a collaboration of the MHSAA, Wings Event Center and Discover Kalamazoo, and the event is in its second year of a four-year contract with the facility. Saturday's 3:45 p.m. championship matches will close a three-week team tournament with champions celebrated in four divisions.
Last year’s Finals drew a championship-record attendance of 9,469.
"There’s no way you can miss Wings Event Center right off I-94,” said Dan Hutcheson, assistant director of the MHSAA. “Parking, the facilities. In general, this is a great place for us. Probably the most important thing for us is the people who work here. They’ve been so good to us, especially Rob (Underwood, Wings Event Center general manager) and Melissa (Janecke, special events coordinator).”
Garvey started planning this year’s event the day after last year’s championships finished. He started getting commitments from volunteers in the fall.
Providing memorable experiences for wrestlers, officials and fans are main priorities, and that means covering every detail from weigh-ins to concessions to where teams will stay and parents will park.
Garvey has volunteers who act as liaisons for each team, greeting them, distributing their packets and familiarizing them with the venue.
How does he get so many volunteers?
“I beg,” he said, laughing. “I say that in jest because people are thrilled to be part of this. I emailed all the ADs and wrestling coaches in the area, and they’ve just jumped in.
“Also the Kalamazoo wrestling officials association has jumped in as well, not as referees (but) as volunteers. Chris Furlong, the wrestling coach at Portage Northern, has been invaluable.”
The main action will take place in the stadium, where four mats are showcased on risers.
“It’s like the movie ‘Hoosiers’ when the guy opened the door at Butler and the kids walked in and were awestruck,” Garvey said. “That’s how these kids look, especially for the first time.”
There is more to the tournament than the wrestlers.
Portage Northern softball players are selling programs, and the concession stands in the arena are open.
“Teams can bring in their own food, and we have a place for them to eat (in the area above the third rink),” Garvey said.
Referees have their own space in the ECHL Kalamazoo Wings locker room, and “Portage Northern wrestling moms are setting up something for the refs in the locker room so they can just go back there for their food,” Garvey said.
Taco John’s will cater lunches for the volunteers, which Garvey calls “Garv’s Guys.”
Garvey also selects singers of the national anthem before each round.
South Haven’s Jim McCloughan, who received the Medal of Honor in 2017 for his service in Vietnam, will sing before the Division 2 and 3 Quarterfinals.
Martin junior Aleyca Morey and Loy Norrix sophomore Sierra Ward will perform before the other two divisions on Friday. Saturday’s anthem singers will be Portage Central junior Ciara Williams, Mattawan junior Thomas Lamb and St. Augustine fifth grader Marissa Toweson.
Discover Kalamazoo, a tourist information center, also is involved in the tournament playing a key role in many behind-the-scenes necessities.
“Our office is very engaged with helping place the participating teams and coaches into hotels,” said Greg Ayers, president/CEO of Discover Kalamazoo. “Of the 32 teams, most all of them will have at least one night (and some two nights) in our local hotels.
“While we don't have any specific number(s) regarding the economic impact of the event, we know 32 teams, their fans and others will have impact on area hotels, restaurants, retail, gas stations, etc.”
Ayers anticipates another large crowd this weekend.
“(With) three teams (Schoolcraft, Dowagiac and Niles) in our backyard, we anticipate big crowds to be in attendance supporting their teams,” he said.
Hutcheson, who wrestled at Ferris State University and spent three years at the Olympic training center, can look at the tournament from several vantage points
“When I look at an event like this, I look at it as a past wrestler, as a past coach, as an AD, and as a spectator,” he said.
“I try to think of all the different lenses you have to look through at an event, then we try to do the best we can.”
Wings Event Center has become a “Home of Wrestling,” Underwood said. “They like it, and we like it.
“The convenience off I-94, the great hotels we have around here with more opening, the seats in this venue, the concessions and bathrooms have made it a great location.”
Wings Event Center hosts five MYWAY youth wrestling events a year, and it was through Dave Dean, that organization’s president, that the MHSAA Finals began looking to Kalamazoo.
“My relationship with Dave Dean in MYWAY led me to Dan Hutcheson, and we started our conversations a couple years ago and here we are,” Underwood said. “It’s a great event, and we love having it here.”
Underwood has become a fan and spectator of the event.
“Once you start watching, it’s hard to walk away from it,” he said. “The team event is really neat because of the camaraderie with the wrestlers and the coaches and their following. When you look in the stands and just see color blocking for that team and the support, that’s cool to see.”
“(The MHSAA) does one (tournament) here and (individual championships) at Ford Field, so I guess we’re in good company.”
Garvey said he always wanted to run an MHSAA Finals tournament and jumped at the job when it went to Kalamazoo.
This year is especially special for Garvey.
“One of the neat things for me this year is that Schoolcraft has qualified,” he said “Their coach, Rob Ling, was a Lawton wrestler (with Garvey as coach), and he’s one of my boys.
“It makes me feel very proud. That’s a bonus for me.”
Ayers said more than half the teams are returning to Kalamazoo this year and “those teams and their fans are gaining familiarity with our community (hotels, restaurants, etc.)
“Having high school-aged students in our community provides excellent opportunities to introduce Kalamazoo. It can lead to prospective students for WMU, Kalamazoo College and Kalamazoo Valley Community College.”
Garvey said his team is always trying to improve.
“Last year everybody who came to this tournament as participants said it was the best Team Finals ever,” he said. “Being competitors, we want it to be better every year.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) By Thursday evening, Wings Event Center awaited this weekend's MHSAA Team Wrestling Finals. (Middle) Clockwise from left: Lowell's Curt Cummings sets up the clocks. Portage Northern junior Shane Lisk, left, and senior Cameron Migliaccio clean the mats. Wings Event Center special events coordinator Melissa Janecke tapes the mats. Portage Northern senior wrestler Quinten Baughman continues the process of mat cleaning. (Below) Mike Garvey, left, and Rob Underwood. (Photos by Pam Shebest.)