More than 200 wrestlers, a quarter of them ranked among the elite in their weight class, will converge on on Saturday for the 25th Annual Zelinski Memorial Duals tournament. The event, regarded as one of the state's best, will feature teams and athletes that are likely to be competing against each other during the state individual and team tournament finals in February and March.
Four of the 16 competing high schools--Merrill, Mukwonago, Hartford and West Allis Central--are ranked among Wisconsin's top 10 in Division 1. A fifth, Stoughton, is just outside that group, and Pewaukee is ranked fifth in Division 2. Perennial powerhouses Muskego and Pulaski are also among the teams that will meet on one of the eight mats when the tourney begins at 9:30 a.m.
Individually, 41 of Saturday's competitors are ranked among the top 15 in their respective weight classes. Another 15 have earned honorable mention. Three weight classes--132 pounds, 152 pounds and 195 pounds--each have six entrants who are either ranked or honorably mentioned.
Unlike an individual tournament in which each weight class is bracketed leading to a single champ, the Zelinski Duals is a team format. Each team will face five other teams over the course of the day, with winning and losing teams moving into parallel brackets until an unbeaten winning team emerges by late afternoon.
Pairings haven't been announced yet, and wrestlers sometimes alternate between weight classes for strategic purposes, but the tourney could produce some matches that will rival those of the state finals next month.
"The top teams, year in and year out, keep coming back," said Whitnall coach John Quinlan. "First of all, they know they're going to be tested. We have a high level of competition. Secondly, it has a reputation of being a well-run tournament. And the third part is that a lot of the coaches like the idea that all the proceeds are going to scholarships."
While most teams return this year, there is a small amount of turnover for a variety of reasons. Because of the tourney's reputation and Quinlan's continuous promotion of it to fellow coaches at state meets, there is a waiting list of schools that want to be invited.
Growth in Size and Purpose
At its inception 25 years ago, in Quinlan's second year as a coach, the competition involved only six teams on three mats in Whitnall's old gym. "We wanted to do something different," said Quinlan, recalling that most other tournaments at the time were of the individual, rather than dual, variety. When it grew to its current size, "we were the only 16-team dual event," he said. Space considerations at various times required the placement of mats in the school's cafeteria, natatorium, and at the middle school. Now the competition sites are separated only by a hallway.
During the 1990s, the Zelinski name became an integral part of Whitnall wrestling. Brothers Joel, John and Jim dominated the lighter weights in conference competition. John, now on the Hartford coaching staff, won a state championship. Their father, Earl, volunteered in many capacities and continues to do so, both at practices and as the official scorekeeper at home meets. His brother, Dale, also was a key volunteer for the program.
Tragically, in the late 1990s, Joel and Dale lost their lives in separate traffic accidents almost exactly a year apart. With the family's blessing, Whitnall's invitational tournament was renamed in honor of both Zelinskis in 1998, and its proceeds were directed to the Joel Zelinski Memorial Scholarship Fund. Since then, over $80,000 has been raised by the tournament, funding scholarships for more than 100 students, most but not all of them Whitnall graduates.
"I'm always amazed at the way the community responds," said Quinlan, assessing the logistics of a tournament that produces 40 team meets and as many as 560 matches in a single day. "It takes a lot of work, a lot of volunteer help, but I don't have to be recruiting all the time. Wrestling alumni, parents of alumni, our wrestlers' parents...we get 50 to 60 volunteers every year, scoring, selling tickets and clothing, concessions. And nobody gets paid."
Admission for the day is $7.
- Whitnall had four undefeated wrestlers at last Saturday's junior varsity tournament at South Milwaukee. Kevin Seyedin, Ryan Olson, Dylan Kellner and Manu Schumann were unbeaten.
- Co-head coach Craig Austin might have reason to lose enthusiasm for the Zelinski tourney. For the second consecutive year, a pipe burst and flooded paperwork and other effects in his Whitnall High School office on the morning before the tournament. Unlike last year, no tournament programs were lost in Friday's mini-deluge.
- The above-mentioned Earl Zelinski will take a rare absence from his usual post at the scorer's table next week. He will be undergoing surgery for the replacement of both knees.