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State's top wrestlers in Gwinnett for tourney

DULUTH - Bud Hennebaul wishes he could set up a bed at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. It would save him time from driving home at night around midnight and getting back up at 5:30 a.m.

"I'm having a hard time seeing the light of day," Hennebaul joked.

Hennebaul's 16-plus hours of the day at the Arena is just part of his sacrifice in making Georgia's traditional state wrestling tournament the largest all-classification tournament in the state and the largest state wrestling tournament in the country.

As vice president of the Atlanta Takedown Club, Hennebaul was instrumental in bringing all five classifications to the Arena in 2006. After suffering through growing pains last year, Hennebaul and the Atlanta Takedown Club and the Georgia High School Association are making this year's tournament better than last year.

"As far as wrestling goes, it's a good thing because you see all the wrestlers," GHSA Assistant Executive Director Gary Phillips said. "It's put everybody in the same place and then you have a chance for everybody to realize who is the best."

While the state wrestling tournament is a GHSA sponsored event, Phillips knows the tournament would not happen if not for people like Hennebaul.

"Without them, we couldn't do this," Phillips said. "There's just no way that we would have a process to collect all these people. All the food is donated, people putting up the mats, working the tables; it's just too big if you didn't have somebody like that.

"What I've said to someone else is they've done all the heavy lifting. They're organized, enthusiastic; they are guys that want wrestling to be a big time sport in the state, they've just given up their time and resources to make it happen."

This week's tournament features 1,680 wrestlers from 273 teams. At least 170 volunteers have helped run score tables, the hospitality room, weigh-ins, setting up mats, everything that goes into setting up a wrestling tournament only on a bigger stage.

Compared to other all-classification state tournaments in Georgia such as track, tennis, cross country, volleyball and swimming, wrestling is the largest. Over four days last year's state tournament had a paid attendance of 8,616, not including wrestlers, coaches and other staff members at the tournament. The only sport that is remotely close to wrestling in terms of attendance is swimming, which had 5,000 at Westminster last week.

If you combined the attendance from the four other sports - track, tennis, cross country and volleyball - they drew a combined 10,427 people. This weekend's state tournament is expected to be just as big if not bigger than last year's.

"I think the crowd will show that," said Hennebaul, who was Gwinnett's first state wrestling champion in 1978 while at Parkview. "It's amazing to see that many people at a high school event in Georgia."

The Arena itself has at least 150 staff members working different shifts, some even working the entire day from when wrestling starts at 8 a.m. until it concludes after 10 p.m.

"It's a huge production, but you have to give all the credit to the GHSA. They handle it with flying colors," said Chris Hendley, media and marketing manager for the Gwinnett Arena.

The Arena is used to hosting events like the state wrestling tournament. It hosts the GHSA basketball state finals in March and is home to the Gwinnett Gladiators, a minor league hockey team. And it doesn't look like the wrestling tournament will be leaving anytime soon. The tournament has already secured dates for the next two years.

"We'll keep having them as long as they keep coming," Hendley said. "This type of event is different, so our staff gets a charge out of it."

Last year's tournament was more about trial and error. Hennebaul said there were 63 items from last season's tournament that had to be addressed for this week's tourney.

The biggest was checking in all the wrestlers and getting them weighed in. They tried to have more than a 1,000 wrestlers and hundreds of coaches all check in at one time, which made for a disaster.

"What I think basically was the problem was no coach had lived through this, no athlete had lived through this, nor anybody else behind the scenes, so nobody knew exactly what to expect," Phillips said. "Some people got really upset and I just say to people: 'Wait a minute, you've never done this, right coach? No. Well, neither have we, so we got to work this out. Just show some patience and we'll get it worked out.'"

To fix the problem this year, an extra day was added with Class AAAA weigh-in Wednesday afternoon and wrestling that evening. Later on that night, Class AAAAA and AAA weighed-in and then started wrestling on Thursday. Class AA weighed in on Thursday night and Class A Friday morning.

"This year, it was a lot easier. We touched base about, 'Remember, this is how we would settle getting the teams in and weighted in, this is how we would get people with coaches passes in,' all those different things. So it's a lot smoother," Phillips said.

Coaches have adjusted to the way the tournament is run this year and for Phillips said he's received several compliments about this tournament.

"Most of them say it gives them a chance to see all these other wrestlers," Phillips said. "One coach told me last night that he thought this was the appropriate way to honor the best wrestlers. I guess that's a good way to phrase it. You're trying to showcase the best talent you have, so this is the way to do that."

The tournament will showcase the best of the best tonight when the finals start at 7 p.m.

The presentation of the state finals will be different than it was last year.

"Saturday night this place is going to be jamming," Hennebaul said. "I hope the moms and dads are smart enough to get here early. I hate for them to get locked out."

Hennebaul would not go into detail about how the finals will be different because he wants to keep it a surprise, but he did say it will be different than last year's parade of champions.

"If you love wrestling, if you love the sport of wrestling and you want to see the best kids wrestle I don't know how it gets any better than having them all here at one spot," Parkview co-head coach Dennis Stromie said.