Top Gun is grounded for 2021

Rob Todor
The Alliance Review
Alliance's Brailyn LIghtner, top, wrestles Chardon's Charlie Brosch at the 2019 Top Gun Wrestling Tournament.

One of the nation's prestigious high school wrestling tournaments is taking a hiatus in January.

The Top Gun, hosted by Alliance High School since 1987, has been canceled because of COVID-19 concerns. The tournament was scheduled for January 15-16, 2021, and Alliance Athletic Director Mike Schott said the 2022 tournament is scheduled for January 14-15.

"Planning for Top Gun is a year-round thing," Schott said Wednesday. "There are so many people involved in the success of the tournament — you just can't wait until the week of the tournament to make a decision."

Several other tournaments in Northeast Ohio have been canceled, namely, the Bill Dies Memorial at Akron Firestone and the Walsh Jesuit Ironman.

"We didn't want to act impulsively and cancel it and then things turn around [with COVID-19]," said Schott. "But as we were waiting it out and looking at some different things we could do with the format these other tournaments started dropping. During that timeframe, the West Virginia high school athletic association decided its wrestling teams could only compete in duals and tris — no multi-team tournaments. So we were going to lose some of those schools that come here for Top Gun."

Marlington senior Mason McCarty escaped Chardon's Vaughn Fink and went on to win by pin at 138 pounds during the 2020 Top Gun Wrestling Tournament in Alliance.

Schott said as other tournaments canceled he was getting deluged with emails from coaches hoping to compete at Top Gun.

"We could have been up to 60, 65 teams if we wanted to," he said. "It just came down to, we had to make a decision based on what was best for everyone."

Schott said alternate formats included splitting into morning and evening sessions and sanitizing the gymnasium and public areas between sessions. Another idea was to limit the field to only state tournament qualifiers and one or two additional wrestlers per team. And, Schott said, it was highly probable that no fans would be permitted to attend because the wrestlers would have to be socially distanced in the stands between matches.

"There are two things that make Top Gun what it is — the competition and the atmosphere," he said. "Top Gun has always been a team tournament and we didn't want to go away from that, and to not be able to have fans in there … that's a huge part of the tournament."

West Branch's Jake Hurst, left, and Orrville's Coddie Phillips during their 285-pound consolation match during the January 18, 2020 session of the Top Gun Tournament at Alliance High School.

Schott said the option to reduce the number of teams was also discussed and summarily rejected.

"Some tournaments have gone to a reduced number of teams [but] that wasn't a direction we wanted to," he said. "We've always liked having as many teams as we could get. Telling some teams they couldn't come … that's not a good way to do business.

"The bottom line was, if we couldn't do it the right way, then postpone it and do it next year."

Marlington wrestling coach Andy Lamancusa lamented the cancellation but wasn't surprised.

"That was our bigger tournament," he said. "I wouldn't take a full lineup, but our guys who I thought would compete for district and state berths … it was a great midseason measuring stick to see where we were out. Guys need to have multiple, high-quality competition like that because it's what they're going to see in March."

Alliance's Logan Bell, top, and Aurora's Ethan Anderson during their 170-pound consolation match during the January 18, 2020 session of the Top Gun Tournament at Alliance High School.

Not only wrestlers will be disappointed in the cancellation. The tournament created tremendous revenue for the Alliance athletic department and businesses like restaurants and hotels.

Mark Locke, the president of the Alliance Area Chamber of Commerce, said the impact on hotels and restaurants in Alliance will be "obviously, pretty high. You are talking about 40 or 50 teams who stay here at least one night, plus the coaches and their families. All three of our major hotels are filled that weekend.

"That's going to be a major impact for two industries which are already struggling," said Locke.

Schott didn't anticipate Alliance having to drop sports due to the lack of funding or not using Mount Union Stadium for home football games. The schools pay a fee to use the university-owned facility.

"Mount Union has been outstanding with us," he said. "They've allowed our kids to play and worked with us through the pandemic.

"Our [city schools] administration has been very up front and faced the facts of what this school year has brought," said Schott. "Our folks are all about the kids first, providing them with opportunities, so we will do what we need to do to continue that."

Alliance coach Craig Shaw wasn't surprised to learn Top Gun would be canceled.

"Everybody understands but I hate it for the kids," said Shaw. "Right now, as a coach, my focus is on having some type of season. Our number one goal is to have the sectional, district and state tournaments.