It’s telling just how important a tournament is when a wrestler from an opposing school who would go on to win conference and regional championships and place fifth at the IHSA State Finals retrospectively calls his win at that regular-season tournament “probably my biggest win all year.”
That is exactly how Ottawa High wrestler and The Times 2019-20 Wrestler of the Year Luke Fleming described his Princeton Invitational Tournament championship.
The 58th annual Princeton Invitational wrestling tournament, best known as the “PIT,” was scheduled for last weekend, but Prouty Gym will remain silent, its lights dimmed as the result of the ongoing pandemic.
The IHSA wrestling season has been put on “pause,” with a new proposed start-up date of April 19.
It’s just not going to be the same for the hundreds of wrestlers and thousands of fans who spill into Prouty Gym each year.
“This has been a pretty tough year, and not having this year’s PIT just adds to it,” PHS coach Steve Amy said. “I would love to be in the full swing of the season right now. It’s hard not being with the team and working hard with them to achieve their goals.
“The PIT is one of my favorite weekends of the year. Most years it’s just as tough, if not tougher, than the state tournament.”
In the beginning
Lyle King, the late PHS wrestling coach and AD, started up the PIT in 1963.
John F. Kennedy was the 35th president of the United States.
A first-class postage stamp was four cents.
A gallon of gas cost 30 cents.
A gallon of milk cost 49 cents.
The PIT was renamed as the Lyle King Princeton Invitational in honor of its founder in the ’90s. The late Randy Swinford, who was the varsity wrestling coach at PHS from 1983-2008, said in 2013 – the PIT’s 50th anniversary – that it was only appropriate to name the tournament in King’s honor.
“Lyle’s the guy that brought wrestling to Princeton and put it in place at interscholastic level,” Swinford said. “He created the tournament. Without him, we don’t know if it would have got started here or when.”
Bigger and better
The first PIT had just four teams: Princeton, Kewanee, Rock Falls and Freeport.
It has grown bigger and better over the years, from four teams to eight, then to 10, 12, 16, 24 and to its current 32/33-team format with Swinford and Amy continuing to build the tournament into the best Class A event outside of the state meet.
“I think the fact when we started expanding and went south and tried to get some of the best teams, and attracted some of the north teams that wanted to see them before they got to state,” Swinford said in 2013. “You want to see how good you are, and this kind of shows you where you’re at about a month before state.”
The PIT became a two-day event in 2002 when the field was expanded to 24, allowing for a true wrestleback format where everybody gets a shot at third place.
“It’s just not fair to the kids, the competitors, to limit them. This is the most fair way of seeing who your top six wrestlers are,” Swinford said.
State champs wrestle here
There have been 140 individual state champions to wrestle in the PIT, and at least 12 state championship teams and 17 state runner-up teams among 52 overall medal-winning teams.
Dakota has produced the most state champions to come through the PIT with 18. Other leading schools are Wilmington (11) and Riverdale (10).
Six homegrown talents that wrestled in the PIT went on to win state championships for Princeton, including a father-son tandem, Dennis (1980) and Brian Taylor (2002), and brothers, Kipp (1990) and Kristian Wahlgren (1993-94), as well as Mike Jones (1983) and Brandon Nink (2003).
At least 14 PHS different grapplers have won the PIT over the past 41 years, with a total of 21 championships, including multiple winners.
‘In our home’
The PIT is a date every Tiger grappler has circled on his calendar, pumped to wrestle in front of the home crowd and facing state-caliber competition.
Brian Anderson, a three-time PIT winner (1991-93) loved having the tournament “in our home.” His father, Randy, was a two-time champ (1964-65).
Josh Anderson, one of three brothers to wrestle in the PIT, along with Brian and Zach, has a unique perspective of the PIT, having wrestled for the home team and now returning the past few years as an official, driving up from southern Illinois each year.
“As a wrestler, I was always excited to compete in the PIT. It was an opportunity to compete against some of the best athletes in the state on your home floor, in front of our proud parents and loyal friends and fans,” he said.
“It also gave us an opportunity to see how we might match up with another student-athlete at the state tournament. It was an all-around great experience as an athlete. ...
“As an official, this is a tournament you want to do. The competition is top-notch in the state, and it gave me an opportunity to meet some of the northern coaches that I had not met.
“Ultimately, working the PIT catapulted me into being able to work the individual state tournament. Officiating the state tournament is a huge accomplishment for anyone.”
The PIT has held special memories for Aaron Christiansen. He was a PIT champion for PHS (class of ’95) and two-time runner-up, sitting out his junior year with a knee injury. He’s sat in the Tiger corner as a longtime assistant coach, last year enjoying watching his son, Augie, place fourth, the highest for any freshman in Amy’s 12-year tenure at PHS.
“The PIT has always been a good tournament. When I was wrestling, it was somewhere around 12 teams, but very competitive, and now were up to 33-ish teams, and one of the powerhouse tournaments in the state,” Christiansen said.
“Coach Amy has done a great job in promoting this tournament to what it is. There are teams waiting on a long list to get in. It’s a pre-state type of tournament to see where you’re at with the best kids in the state. It’s an honor to be part of a tournament of that caliber, and I think it’s great for our kids mentally and physically, and also great for our community.
“It’s a shame that the year has gone the way it has, for these kids most importantly. It’s just one of those battles in life you have to overcome and keep a positive focus and attitude.”