December 03, 2009
By Korie Sawyer
Greater Raleigh CVB Sports Marketing

WRAL Wrestling Invitational is Mainstay on Area Sports Calendar

When Stan Chambers represented Cary High School in the WRAL High School Invitational Wrestling Tournament in 1985, he probably didn’t think that 24 years later he would still be attending the annual event.

But now, as a coach at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh, Chambers takes great pleasure in bringing his team back to this prestigious event that he once wrestled in and won.

 When the 38th annual WRAL tournament takes place on Dec. 18-19 at Athens Drive High School, more than 500 wrestlers, plus coaches and fans will travel to Raleigh for a 36-team double elimination event.  

            This prestigious tournament got started when Bob Caudle of WRAL-TV suggested the local television station sponsor a high school wrestling event in 1972. Since the first whistle blew on December 29 at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, the WRAL tournament has become one of the most anticipated events for high school wrestlers and coaches in North Carolina and beyond.

            “We are well known throughout the Southeast and considered one of the best and strongest tournaments in North Carolina,” tournament director Jerry Barker said.

            Chambers also adds that a big name, like WRAL, is essential for the exposure wrestlers and coaches both want in order to be recognized and appreciated for their incredible talents.

            “It is a very difficult sport with little reward,” Chambers said.

Ron Williams, former Athens Drive wrestling coach and one of the assistant directors of the tournament, says one of the most successful attributes of the tournament is its tough competition.

“It has been competitive for nearly every invited team,” Williams said.  “A large percentage of our winners go on to become state champions or place in their state championships after a mid-season encounter with the WRAL Wrestling Tournament.”

            Among some of the notable former champions of the tournament are Raymond Jordan, a three-time WRAL winner who placed third nationally for the University of Missouri last season, and Colton Palmer, the only four-time WRAL champion. Palmer, who is now a freshman scholarship wrestler at N.C. State, holds the national high school record for wins in a season.

“Every year about 12-15 wrestlers from our tournament go on to win state titles,” Barker said.

            Over the past 37 years, more than 472 different teams and 6,145 wrestlers have participated in the tournament. These wrestlers have come from 135 high schools that span from North Carolina to Louisiana. Barker says the WRAL tournament was the first high school tournament to invite out-of-state participants. Having such a wide selection of teams participate adds to the tradition of the tournament.

            “Each year we invite the top half of the field back, then invite top teams in the state dual and individual championships, seeking teams from all sizes and locations in North Carolina and from out of state,” Barker said.

            The tournament not only showcases some of the best talent in high school wrestling, but coaches see it as a tremendous learning experience for their student-athletes.

            “It is also a great measuring point for our team,” said Kenneth Kepley, head coach of Northwest Cabarrus High School in Concord, N.C. “I can have undefeated guys on my team who think they are where they need to be.  When we come to WRAL and experience the better competition, my guys realize we are not where we need to be.  It makes them go back home and work even harder so they will be successful.”

            Aside from the great competition inside the gym, having out-of-state teams travel to the Greater Raleigh area is a great economy booster. The estimated economic impact is about $150,000 in direct visitor spending, primarily at hotels, restaurants and retail stores.

            “This is such an important even t for our local hospitality industry, because it falls at a perfect time of the year,” said Scott Dupree, Vice President for Sports Marketing at the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau. “In that final week before Christmas, there is not much corporate or business travel taking place, and conventions slow down considerably, so does sports for that matter. For those reasons, the WRAL Wrestling Invitational is the ideal fit at a high-need time on our tourism calendar. I don’t think I could pick out a better time all year to have 500 wrestlers and their families visit Raleigh, stay in our hotels and enjoy our restaurants.

            Dupree added that the WRAL Invitational is one of oldest, most historic sporting events in the region.

            “This is one of the most tradition-rich events on Raleigh's annual sports calendar,” Dupree said. “It's been around since the early 1970s and every year it continues to grow in stature and prestige, as the some of the very best wrestlers from North Carolina and beyond compete right here in the Capital City.”

            One crucial factor to the continued success of the WRAL tournament can be attributed to the superb job of the host school, Athens Drive, and the tournament committee, especially Barker.

            “Jerry Barker does an unbelievable job of hosting and managing this event every year,” Dupree said. “He runs a first-class invitational, and that is evidenced by the number of teams that register, and by the number of teams that return year after year. It's a great testament to Jerry's efforts and to Athens Drive High School, which is such a superb host."

            As the second oldest running wrestling tournament in North Carolina, Williams says the tournament has many qualities that make it a success.

“It has a history of fairness, good sportsmanship, prestige, and expedient runs over its 37 years,” Williams said. “It has a reputation throughout North Carolina and several other states as an excellent holiday tournament with an emphasis on quality, great competition and wrestling camaraderie.”

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