The wrestling scene at the Fargodome has to been seen, not explained, to fully appreciate the experience.
It’s wrestling at its best — in more ways than one.
Of course, it is where just about all of the nation’s top-ranked wrestlers head each July, while also exposing wrestlers of all different levels to a glimpse of what the elite level looks like.
It is also where big names in wrestling — Dan Gable, Danny Hodge, etc. — congregate each year to check in on the next generation of grapplers at the Cadet and Junior National Championships in Fargo, N.D.
The competition in both age groups — cadet and junior — and both disciplines — Greco-Roman and freestyle — brings the packed Fargodome to its feet at times, creating an energy that engulfs the entire crowd.
It used to be overwhelming for Arizona competitors. The group would come back with plenty of experience but very little in the terms of hardware.
There were the rare exceptional individuals through the years, but the new team approach has pushed Arizona into the top tier of states in recent years, including a record 13 All-Americans last season.
The mark didn’t last long as Team Arizona, highlighted by Ironwood Ridge’s (Tucson) Danny Vega pulling off the triple crown, set a record this year with 15 All-Americans.
“It’s a good group of kids that we’ve been working with for a long time since they were schoolboy age,” Thunder coach and Arizona USA Wrestling executive David Gonzalez said. “This is years of them working hard and the kids pulling for each other. They are a team now. Rivalries have been put aside and it truly is Team Arizona.”
Before last year, there were only 10 Fargo national champions from Arizona, and none since 2004, until Vega won No. 11.
That total is now up to 16 as Vega won the Junior freestyle and Greco-Roman titles at 106 pounds, Sunnyside’s (Tucson) Roman Bravo-Young won titles in both styles at 100 pounds in Cadet and Chandler sophomore Jason Holmes won the Cadet freestyle title at 88 pounds.
Vega also won the Junior Folkstyle Nationals crown in April in Cedar Falls, Iowa, to round out the rare triple crown.
He is the first Arizona wrestler to accomplish the feat at a level higher than the novice age group.
“I’ve thought about winning the triple crown for a long time, but I’d never won Iowa until this year,” Vega said. “After that, it became a real goal. I was going to do everything I could to make it happen.”
The Southeast Valley had several All-Americans as Combs’ (San Tan Valley) Ted Rico finished second in Greco-Roman (126, Junior), Mountain View’s (Mesa) Weston Taylor (160, Junior) was fifth in Greco, Desert Vista’s (Phoenix) Jeremiah Imonode was eighth at 182 in Junior Greco, Seton Catholic’s (Chandler) Quentin Hovis (126, Cadet) was second in Greco and Desert Vista’s Chad Porter (170, Cadet) was eighth.
A lot was accomplished, and Imonode earned All-American status for the second time after moving up an age group this year.
“Placing at Cadet is good, but when you place at Junior, people notice you,” he said. “I want to do something in wrestling and not just be a wrestler. Placing here opens some doors as far as college goes, and it just shows I am heading down the right path.”
Porter had a solid freshman year on varsity for the Thunder, but returning to Arizona as an All-American gives him the confidence to be even stronger.
“It is so cool here,” said Porter, who qualified for the first time. “Everyone is watching and there is a pressure to perform. It’s a big tournament and it is a big accomplishment.”
Porter also noticed a team atmosphere that surprised him. The whole Arizona contingent would move closer to the mat where an Arizona kid was wrestling, especially during the finals for competitors like Vega, Bravo and Holmes.
“We usually have 20 to 30 guys going crazy in our corner,” he said. “It was crazy when those guys won. I want to be the guy everyone is watching in the finals. That’s a goal of mine.”
Jason P. Skoda, a former Arizona Republic and current Ahwatukee Foothill News staff writer, is a 19-year sports writing veteran. Contact him at email@example.com or 480-272-2449.