Sunday, February 21, 2010
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: There's no room for tanking in high school athletics

The first kid is unapologetic. The second wonders what might have been.

And the third kid? He just wrestled. Which is what the other two should have done all along, but didn't.

Christiansburg's Devin Carter did more than win his third state wrestling championship this season. He likely changed the future of his sport -- simply by being so good.

As they wrapped the winning medal around his neck Saturday night, Carter stood next to two boys who chose to forfeit their chance at a regional crown just so they could survive one more round in the VHSL Group AA tournament without having to face him.

The result: A Region II title that went to nobody, a controversy over manipulating brackets and an embarrassing situation for the Virginia High School League that officials are determined not to see repeated.

The VHSL shares some blame here. For the first time in more than a decade, league officials released the state brackets before the region tournaments were completed. They did this for noble reasons, trying to make the process transparent like they do in the other sports.

In short, they put the onus on the athletes and coaches to do the right thing and not tank on purpose.

"Student-athletes need to follow good sportsmanship," VHSL assistant director Tom Dolan said. "That means compete.

"Anything where you have to hide brackets to keep people from manipulating them is a problem. It's unsportsmanlike and wrong and has no place in high school sports."

He's right. One problem, though: It became too tempting. Every 130-pound wrestler could look at that sheet and discover where he'd wind up based on his regional finish -- and nobody wanted to be on the same side of the state bracket as Carter, one of the top wrestlers in the country.

Even one of the kids who forfeited agrees that this whole thing backfired.

"I hope it changes," Brentsville's Seth Henson said. "I don't think it's right what happened. But it happened."

It happened because Greg Flournoy wanted it to. The Fauquier junior saw that the Region II champion would meet Carter in the semifinals. Flournoy had lost in the semifinals last year and didn't want that same fate.

"It was all my idea; the coaches had nothing to do with it," Flournoy said. "I felt like I was the second-best -- if not the best -- wrestler in the state, so I wanted the final match to be between the two best wrestlers in the state."

So he forfeited the Region II finals.

And Henson forfeited right back.

"I don't want to take a region title like that," Henson said. "I've never been given anything. I don't want to take it that way."

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And he didn't particularly want to wrestle Carter early, either. But when the VHSL put it in the hands of the coaches to determine who went in which state slot, Henson drew the short straw.

He was pinned by Carter in 48 seconds in the state semis. He finished fourth.

Flournoy won three matches to make the finals, where Carter prevailed by technical fall. Flournoy took second.

But if anyone forfeits on purpose next season, he's not likely to place in the state. Dolan said he's already drafted legislation that would disqualify wrestlers who forfeit without a viable reason, medical or otherwise. He'll introduce it to the executive committee next week.

Carter's reaction to all this?

"It's flattering, I guess," he said.

Not that he needed it. He's leaving a champion. And he did it simply by wrestling the guy in front of him, like a high school kid should.

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