Preps

Thursday, Mar 06 2014 11:49 PM

Bakersfield rolls out the welcome mat again for CIF state wrestling championships

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    It takes many workers to put together the wrestling mats at the Rabobank Arena Thursday for the two-day CIF State Wrestling Championships in Bakersfield. Lou Montano, right, directs the workers where to place the numerous mats.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    This is how the Rabobank Arena is transformed from a hockey arena to a site for the annual state wrestling championships Thursday morning.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Workers put the wrestling mats in place Thursday at the Rabobank Arena for the two-day CIF State Wrestling Championships in Bakersfield.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Paul Garcia unwraps the wrestling mats Thursday with help from many others including high school students for the Friday and Saturday CIF State Wrestling Championships in Bakersfield.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    It took about a dozen workers to set up the floor of the Rabobank Arena for the CIF State Wrestling Championship Friday and Saturday in Bakersfield.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    There will be many spectators, athletes and coaches in the Rabobank Arena Friday and Saturday in Bakersfield for the state wrestling meet. The new, colorful wrestling mats are being put into place on the floor, Thursday morning.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    The brand new, colorful wrestling mats are put into place in the Rabobank Arena by many volunteers, Thursday, preparing for the 10th anniversary of holding the state wrestling meet in Bakersfield.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Paul Garcia, center, and several other volunteers set up the wrestling mats Thursday morning inside the Rabobank Arena in preparation for the 10-year anniversary of the state werstling meet in Bakersfield Friday and Saturday.

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BY ZACH EWING Californian staff writer zewing@bakersfield.com

It's the Thursday calm before the chaos of this weekend's CIF State Wrestling Championships at Rabobank Arena, and Mary Lindsey wants to make sure everything is ready.

So she whips a roll of packing tape out of her purse.

"David?" she asks. "Could you fix that box one more time?"

David Gardner, a teacher and wrestling coach at East High, looks around the side of the cardboard box full of registration forms he's working behind.

"I didn't even see that," he said, looking at a broken corner that had reopened. "We can't have that."

By the time you're reading this, 560 wrestlers from around California will have arrived in Bakersfield for the pinnacle of their seasons. With them will come coaches from some 270 teams and thousands of fans.

"The California state meet is one of the best wrestling meets in the country," said assistant tournament director Lou Montano, who coached for 10 years at Columbia University in New York City. "You hear that from a lot of people. It is a big deal."

It's been 10 years since the state meet moved to Bakersfield and at the start, nobody was quite sure what they were getting into.

"The first couple of years were -- well, they were challenging," said meet director Alan Paradise, the principal at North High.

Now, no box corner is left unchecked. Neither is any other detail, judging by Lindsey's purse: Pens, highlighters, paper, tape.

"I know what I need," she said. "It seems like things run smoother now. Every year gets easier."

***

A meet of this size takes on a life of its own, and everybody needs a head telling it what to do and where to go. In this case, that's Paradise.

He took the job in 2003, the year before Bakersfield would first host the event.

"It honestly wasn't on my radar screen, but I received a few phone calls from people asking me to apply," said Paradise, who wrestled as a high schooler in Iowa before competing for Cal State Bakersfield in the 1980s. "I really had no idea it was going to go on this long."

From 1988 until 2003, Stockton had hosted the state meet at Spanos Center, a cozy arena that gave the wrestlers a place to compete -- and not much else.

"Boys wrestling at that time was growing every year, and quite frankly, we out-grew the space at Spanos Center," said Brian Seymour, the CIF's senior director.

Or, as Paradise put it: "You could stand in line for an hour to get a hot dog."

As it enters its second decade as host, Bakersfield has avoided those problems, partly because of the venue, which is universally praised because it combines an arena with a hotel and a convention center with plenty of space for registration, warm-ups and weigh-ins.

Bakersfield's other major plus is its people -- some who are paid a pittance for their contribution, but also several hundred who volunteer their time for a sport they love.

"There's such a unique tradition of this sport in Bakersfield that goes back many, many years," Paradise said. "So it's not hard to find volunteers who do a great job."

***

Lindsey is the face of the meet.

Because she is in charge of the registration process, Lindsey is one of the first people wrestlers and coaches see when they come to Rabobank Arena.

"Oh, all the coaches know who I am," Lindsey said. "If they have a problem, I try to solve it."

Lindsey had three sons who wrestled, two at North and one at Centennial, and now her grandson wrestles for Tehachapi.

"I enjoy it; I've been in wrestling for years," Lindsey said. "It's a labor of love."

***

Sandy Stevens is the voice of the state meet -- and, you could argue, of wrestling in general.

Her iconic Midwestern voice has announced 34 consecutive NCAA Wrestling Championships, wrestling at the Olympics in 1984 and 1996, junior national championships, plus numerous college, high school and junior meets around the country.

Oh, and this will be Stevens' 27th straight California state meet.

"It's like coming back to family," said Stevens, who lives in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, Ill. "I've been around to many different spots, but this is like the California wrestling family."

Stevens grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and her story in wrestling started when she met a boy named Bob "Bear" Stevens. He was a wrestler. Sandy wanted to be around Bear, so she was around wrestling.

Bear coached, and one day he was without an announcer for a meet. In a pinch, he asked his wife, who reluctantly agreed.

She liked it. Really liked it. Soon, Sandy was doing sectional meets, then state championships. Everyone who listened was infected with her enthusiasm.

"People tell me they like my voice, and that they appreciate the background and preperation I do," said Stevens, who keeps dozens of pages of meticulous notes on top wrestlers when she announces. "... I hope they also appreciate my passion for the sport."

***

Lou Montano is the muscle.

It's his job to organize an army of some 25 volunteers to roll out 16 wrestling mats (10 for competition in the main arena, six for warm-ups in the convention center), arrange them, tape them together and clean them. After that there are scoreboards, tables for scorekeepers and timers, and fencing to be constructed.

The whole job takes about 12 hours -- four on Wednesday for the warm-up area and about eight on Thursday for the arena.

"We try to set this up like the NCAA (wrestling meet)," said Montano, who was a national runner-up for Cal Poly. "We want to make sure we provide an atmosphere that these student-athletes deserve."

Paradise said hiring Montano as assistant director 10 years ago was his most important move.

"I said, 'Well, are you going to help me?' and he said yes," Paradise recalls. "That's been the joke ever since, that that was the biggest mistake he made."

If you talk to Montano, though, you realize that really is just a joke; he doesn't mind putting his muscle to work for the cause.

"We all have a different role throughout the tournament," he said. "We all remember that the wrestlers are the most important thing. That's why we're here."

***

Todd Tomazic is the brains.

That doesn't mean he doesn't fit in in terms of brawn -- he's a former state champion at Placentia El Dorado High School who later was the captain of Notre Dame's wrestling team -- but Tomazic runs the computer that will spit out automatic updates over the internet, not to mention to the thousands in the arena.

"He's an absolute genius," Paradise said.

Tomazic also organizes the system by which wrestlers register and weigh in, sending out messages that look like they were written in some science-fiction language. One such email:

"=VLOOKUP() fuction was missing the "FALSE" range lookup command in the code. Once I added that they were all fixed:)"

Clear as mud, Todd. But a body can't do much without the brain.

***

There are hundreds of other volunteers; they are the heart and soul, fingers and toes of the state wrestling meet.

From the North High students and staff who help to roll out mats and put together registration packets, to the table workers who keep score and time of all 1,091 matches, to the crews that set up and then tear down the stage for the state-championship matches Saturday night, Paradise estimates that as many as 200 people have a role in putting on the tournament -- and that's before counting paid concession, security and janitorial help.

Nearly all of them are unpaid. Nearly all of them love wrestling.

"They get fed for two days, and they get a shirt," Paradise said, "and they get to watch the show."

***

The show has gone on in Bakersfield, year after year, and it will continue in 2015.

After that? No one can say for sure. Every three years, the CIF asks for proposals from every feasible location in the state.

That will happen again this fall for the 2016-2018 tournaments.

The few cities that apply are competitive. And there is no guarantee that state wrestling will stay in Bakersfield.

"It's safe to say our relationship that we have with the city and the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the local high schools has grown tremendously," said Seymour, the CIF official. "We have great tournament staff that are local high school people, Alan Paradise and his group of people, and they're fantastic.

"... But to say that we'll be in Bakersfield for the next 10 years, none of us have a crystal ball. We're very comfortable there, but I don't know what the future holds."

City Manager Alan Tandy doesn't either. But he knows that the state meet still fits his vision of what he wanted Bakersfield to be 10 years ago.

"The goal really was to get people here and to have them leave with a positive image of the community," Tandy said. "We still do suffer a negative image in some ways in California, but that's the image of people who haven't been here. And the CIF (tournament) is a perfect example of what we're trying to do."

Ten years later, the same philosophy applies.

"We've actively bid each time, and we're going to actively bid this time," Tandy said. "I can't guarantee some (other location) won't intercede and try to steal it away, but we're going to be proactive."

***

That news makes the state wrestling family happy, from head to toe, brain to brawn.

"It's exciting," said Lindsey, still making sure things were running smoothly as coaches trickled in Thursday afternoon. "To have this in Bakersfield is such an honor, and I think it's good for Bakersfield and good for wrestling."

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