THE PREPS : State Wrestling Tournament : The Biggest Doesn't Mean the Best : Southern Section's Size Often Works to Its Disadvantage

Times Staff Writer

If history teaches us anything about the California Interscholastic Federation's state wrestling tournament, it's that bigger isn't necessarily better.

Just look at that poor behemoth, the Southern Section. Of the CIF's 10 sections, the Southern, with 468 member schools, is more than three times as big as the next largest section--the North Coast (144).

And yet, only three Southern Section teams have won state titles in the tournament's 16 years--Covina South Hills in 1981, El Dorado in 1982 and Victor Valley in 1987. Teams from the Central Section--with only 70 schools--have won five titles, and a team from that section, Fresno Clovis West, is favored to win the state tournament that starts today and ends Saturday at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.

The disparity in team titles is by no means an indication of a disparity in talent.

"The Southern Section makes up a sixth of the total CIF," said Bill Clark, Southern Section administrator in charge of wrestling. "If you look at the state placers (top six finishers) each year, you'd see that more than a sixth of them are from the Southern Section. I think that shows that our schools are winning more than their share."

But their teams aren't winning state titles, and the why might be found in the sport's sense of equality--wrestlers only compete against opponents of the same weight. In the same way, allowing the Southern Section only six wrestlers in each weight class may be a way of cutting it down to size.

Granted, that's the most for any section--the Central Coast gets five; the Central, North Coast, Sac-Joaquin and San Diego sections get four each--but given the Southern Section's size, many think six is not enough.

"To come up with those six guys, we're forced to chew each other up," said Gary Bowden, Canyon's coach.

Where they do the chewing is the Southern Section Masters' meet, which was last week. The top six finishers in that meet go to the state tournament. The Masters brings together all four wrestling divisions of the Southern Section (1-A through 4-A); it is larger than 39 state championships and the competition is fierce.

"It's a meat grinder," said Chuck Bishop, Esperanza's coach.

With so many good wrestlers coming from so many schools, it's rare that any one school places a great number of its competitors in the state tournament. This season, Canyon and El Dorado led the way with three qualifiers.

"If you place three or four guys in the state tournament, you're having an awesome year," Bishop said.

But consider that this season's favorite, Clovis West, has five wrestlers going to the state meet. Last season's champion, Antioch High from the North Coast Section, had seven. When Poway High, of the San Diego Section, won the title in 1986, it had 10 wrestlers in the state meet.

The lesson is simple: Quantity, not only quality, wins state wrestling championships.

"I don't think there's any doubt that their size works against them," said Steve Sanchez, Antioch's coach. "If we had to go through their system, we'd certainly lose kids that normally qualify for us."

There are examples of small contingents winning it all. El Dorado did it in 1982 with just three. Capistrano Valley came in second last season, also with only three wrestlers.

"There's no doubt the cards are stacked against you," said Jeff Roberts, Capistrano Valley's assistant coach. "It can be done with three guys, but they have to win everything in sight (Capistrano Valley had one first and two third-place finishers). When you're competing against teams with six and seven guys, you're put at a real disadvantage."

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