Wrestling needs more friends like Ernie Millard and Tom Price.
The longtime Homestead High School coach and the veteran organizer of the Mequon/Thiensville area youth programs, respectively, know their sport has problems as numbers are in steep decline all over the state and country.
The sheer difficulty of the sport and the declining willingness of kids to put in the time over several years contributes to the problem. So does the singlet uniform, not always the most body-flattering. Also at issue are the all-day Saturday tournaments, which are everywhere throughout the winter season, not giving families and athletes much of a break.
Millard and Price address a few of those issues with the 20-team Homestead Scramble, which was held for the 14th year in a row at the high school fieldhouse on Friday, Jan. 20. The event is a dazzling eight-mat extravaganza in which Millard and Price call in every favor they have to make sure their are enough volunteers and that the hospitality room is well-stocked over the course of the six-hour event.
Homestead football gurus Dave Keel and Drake Zortman along with Paul Shahrokhi do an expert job of running the scoring table and announcing, and everyone seems to know what they're doing and where they are going.
The event has many fans.
"Ernie and his program pull off a difficult job without a hitch," said Whitefish Bay coach Dale Loebel, whose team was at the Scramble. "His team has gotten smaller, which makes volunteers harder to come by. It's stressful to run a tournament without the added pressure of having to find people. It ran as smooth as it could have."
"I give Ernie Millard a ton of credit," said Oak Creek coach Matt Sommerville, whose team won the meet. "I mean, who can get a 20-team scramble tourney with five rounds for each wrestler done in six hours? I love the Highlander. I wish more teams would take part."
Well, in a way they do, as with scarcely any sleep, Millard, Price and their army of volunteers came back the next day and hosted a dual meet format junior varsity event. Remarkably, with the organizational carryover from the previous evening, they were able to get everything done by 3 p.m.
And while on the evening of Jan. 21, Millard said he slept "like a dead man," Price had to turn around, dress up and MC the Mequon/Thiensville Educational Foundation's Tartan Bash fundraiser. He is president of the organization.
"Fortunately the football games on Sunday weren't so good, so I could sleep through those," he laughed.
But on a serious note, the Highlander Scramble varsity event and its related JV meet do show a way forward for the sport.
"We really get going on this in mid-December," said Price. "It involves a lot of scrambling to get (volunteer) spots filled, make sure all the food is in place. I've been doing it for 7 or 8 years, even before my kid was involved in the sport.
"The biggest reward from it is being able to support the sport of wrestling. Just get the kids to compete. We're big fans of the Friday night format, give the kids and their families a free Saturday for a change."
One of the teams involved in the Scramble, New Berlin Eisenhower, also held a Friday night tournament earlier in the season in which the Highlanders participated, and Millard said that others involved in the Scramble were thinking about Friday events of their own in the future.
Millard also said Homestead's basketball coaches have always been tremendously flexible in accommodating the twin tournaments, and he has always been grateful for that.
The event has come a long ways since its very modest beginnings 14 years ago. It amazes everyone involved what a model of efficiency the Scramble turns out to be.
"It was supposed to start at 4 p.m., and I swear the first match went off at 4:01," said Menomonee Falls coach Jim McMahon, whose team took second. "It was just as efficient as it could be. It ran so well with great competition, great matches for everyone."
"We had four varsity teams in the old gym and ran the JV meet the same night in our practice room," said Millard of that first year. "We hold the seeding meetings at 3 p.m. (the day of the tourney). Those meetings are so well-organized that they are more informational than anything else, and the kids are always on time (to their respective matches).
"Everyone shows flexibility."
To accommodate the workers and the wrestlers on Jan. 20, there came a point in the evening where half of the mats were shut down, and then the other half, so everyone could get something to eat and breathe a little.
In short, though Millard was a nervous wreck both days, he and Price succeeded in setting up a beautifully organized cacophony of wrestling excitement. It's an idea that others are eyeing up closely to see if they can emulate and give their beloved sport a jump-start.
"It's evolved into a super nice event," said Millard. "We're all tired (by the end of the weekend), but it brings a lot of energy to the sport."