Lewis: Is wrestling becoming an endangered sport?

Pound for pound, Connor Campo of St. Paul’s is Louisiana’s top high school wrestler.

But after Saturday’s final day of the state championships, Campo will hang up his singlet.

Partially, it’s by choice. He’s somewhat burned out by the demands of the sport.

But primarily, Campo — a reigning Division I champion, who has won 104 straight matches against in-state opponents — doesn’t see any suitable opportunities on the college level.

“Maybe if I could get a full ride to a (NCAA) Division I school, I would feel different,” said Campo, who, at 132 pounds, is 44-0 in his senior season. “But that’s not out there for me.”

Campo isn’t alone.

Thanks to pressure to comply with Title IX and other budget concerns, collegiate wrestling in the USA is down to 75 schools in D-I and about 350 nationwide, counting junior colleges, most of them in the East and Midwest. That’s less than half of the total number of 25 years ago, and there are none in Louisiana since LSU dropped the sport in the 1980s.

There has been a slight uptick in schools offering the sport in recent years, most of them Division III liberal arts colleges seeking to attract more male students.

But that may be offset by this week’s announcement by the International Olympic Committee that it’s dropping wrestling, an original Olympic sport that goes back to ancient Greece itself, after the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Some fear that will result in a decline in interest in America.

And with prep wrestling in this state considered a step or two below the level found in college wrestling hot spots, even the best from Louisiana get scant attention from major schools.

LouisianaWrestling.net lists just five wrestlers from the state at Division I schools.

Campo’s only offers are from the Merchant Marine Academy and Wartburg (Iowa) College.

Imagine Louisiana’s top football prospect being offered only by Merchant Marine and Wartburg.

Actually, Wartburg is a very good program, a nine-time Division III national champion which this season is undefeated in dual matches and ranked No. 1 again.

And there’s been a pipeline from Wartburg to the New Orleans area since Ryan Hess of Holy Cross was an All-American there in 2000. In fact, T.J. Miller, son of longtime Wartburg coach Jim Miller, is now a Holy Cross assistant and his father was in attendance at the Pontchartrain Center on Friday.

“We’re very happy with our kids from Louisiana,” said Miller, whose roster includes three from Holy Cross, one from Brother Martin and one from Rummel. “They generally haven’t faced the level of competition you get in a
wrestling hotbed like Iowa.

“Some have never experienced snow, either, and that’s a change for them. But if you want to find a place to keep competing, you can generally find a place.”

That was the case for Ben Willeford, a St. Michael the Archangel graduate who’s now a junior at Cleveland State.

That was also the case for Jacob Haydel of Brusly, last year’s Division III heavyweight champion.

Haydel is now a freshman at Division I South Dakota State, although he has redshirted this year to bring up his experience level.

He’s only one the second person form Brusly’s ultra-successful program compete in college. Panthers coach Jimmy Bible said the other lasted only a semester before leaving because of homesickness.

“Finding a spot for them is not impossible,” Bible said, “But getting them to go off to a small school so far away form home is,” he said. “I’ve had some who thought they did, but by the time they were seniors, they just didn’t feel like doing it anymore. Jacob’s the exception, and he really likes it up there.”

Bible added that it’s unfortunate that opportunities for all prep wrestlers, and particularly for those from states like Louisiana, are so limited.

“I believe wrestlers train harder than those in any other sport,” he said. “I know it’s the toughest in our school because you have to be in great shape, which means training year-round, and you’ve always got to be so mindful about your weight.”

That training regimen, said Campo, was as much a reason for not pursuing a collegiate career as the distance he would have to travel to do so.

“You practice every day,” he said. “I’ve loved wrestling, and I’m going to miss it.

“But I need a break.”