During Mark Branch’s first week of wrestling practice at Oklahoma State University he was approached by Cowboy great and new teammate Alan Fried. Fried asked Branch his name and where he’s from. After the lanky 167-pound freshman from Oklahoma shared his name and hometown, Fried asked, “How did you do in Fargo?”
“I said, ‘What’s Fargo?'” recalled Branch, who participated in wrestling, football and track at Newkirk High School. “Honestly, it was that much ignorance. I came from a very small school. I graduated with 40 people. Our wrestling program was small and it was seasonal. Everybody in the school played multiple sports.”
Today, it’s hard to imagine any incoming freshman wrestler at a powerhouse wrestling program like Oklahoma State not being familiar with the Junior & Cadet National Championships in Fargo, North Dakota, but 23 years ago the wrestling landscape was much different. Junior Nationals had just come to Fargo in 1993 (Cadet Nationals would move to Fargo three years later), the field was comprised of far less competitors than today and the media coverage was minimal. The event now known simply as Fargo, or Fargo Nationals, has become a mega showcase of high school-aged wrestling. The nation’s best 15-18 year-old wrestlers come together for eight days of competition on over 20 mats in late July. This year’s event takes place July 16-23 at the FARGODOME.
“Everybody seems to be familiar with Fargo,” said Roger Kish, head wrestling coach at North Dakota State, where the event is held every summer. “You don’t think of the event as USA Wrestling Nationals. It’s known across the country and the wrestling community as Fargo Nationals. I think you can probably go ask anybody about Fargo and they would know exactly what you’re talking about.”
Branch, who now serves as head wrestling coach at Wyoming, views Fargo as a key date on the recruiting calendar, like many college wrestling coaches across the country. Fargo results, though, don’t always tell the entire story, according to Branch. A wrestler competing in freestyle could suffer a defeat by getting caught in a leg lace or trap-arm gut wrench, moves that cannot be scored with in college wrestling.
“You see those things and you take it with a grain of salt,” said Branch. “The most important thing for me is I want to see the kids who are wrestling year-round. I want to see the kids who are dedicated. You get these kids in your program and you start teaching them that wrestling at the Division I level is a year-round sport. Some kids are not ready for that. It’s nice to know the kids who have done it already and they show that dedication before they get into your program.”
Air Force head wrestling coach Sam Barber echoes a similar sentiment.
“We like to see wrestlers who are committed to wrestling year-round,” said Barber. “First and foremost that’s the most important thing. Fargo signals that guys are committed to competing year-round and they don’t have that in-season-offseason mentality. We’re in-season all the time in Division I wrestling, but we’re doing different things in different parts of the year. It’s no doubt a 12-month endeavor.”
So what specifically do college wrestling coaches look for in wrestlers competing in Fargo?
“We look for core basic skills,” said Barber. “Can he penetrate? Can he hand fight? Can he circle and stay in the center? Those are some of the skills that are really important that you see in freestyle wrestling that transition into good collegiate style wrestlers.
“Then we look at some of the other stuff too. How do they handle winning and losing? How do they handle adversity? Parent interaction. What’s the family dynamic like? Are they coachable? Some of the intrinsic things. We’re not just standing there looking at the brackets waiting to see who stands on the podium and going down the podium and offering scholarships. Being a service academy, we’re looking at character, integrity, pride, poise, competition, fight, effort and attitude. You can evaluate those things at that tournament.
“If a guy is out selling singlets, that’s a big red flag to his commitment to wrestling.”
Kish looks for competiveness and consistency.
“Most importantly, I want to see how competitive they are and how consistent they are,” said Kish. “That’s a big deal. It’s a tough event. You want to see how these guys are going to compete, how they’re going to perform on a big stage and continue to track how consistent they are in their competitions.”
Of the two styles contested in Fargo, freestyle is the style that most closely resembles collegiate style wrestling, or folkstyle wrestling, so naturally college wrestling coaches watch the freestyle competition in Fargo closest. However, that doesn’t mean the Greco-Roman competition is ignored by college wrestling coaches.
“Obviously, I look mostly at freestyle,” said Branch. “There are some kids out there who are in the brink of being an All-American in freestyle, or maybe they were sixth, seventh or eighth in freestyle, but maybe they were first, second or third in Greco. When you see that, I think that’s probably the strongest indicator of a kid who can be successful at the college level. I like a mix of it.”
Barber is proponent of Greco-Roman wrestling.
“We look at both freestyle and Greco-Roman,” said Barber. “We’re huge supporters of Greco-Roman here at the Air Force Academy. We’re one of probably five schools that has guys compete in both freestyle and Greco at UWW Juniors and University Nationals. We do look at Greco too. We show up on the last day of Greco, and then the final three days of freestyle. If a guy is going to wrestle Greco-Roman it says something about his passion for the sport and his commitment to getting matches and improving.”
Branch doesn’t hold it against wrestlers who choose not to compete in Fargo, but believes it’s harder for those wrestlers to gain the attention of college wrestling coaches.
“I think it’s harder for them to get on the radar if they don’t compete in Fargo,” said Branch. “I wouldn’t say I hold it against them. I think that’s a personal experience. I never wrestled freestyle or Greco-Roman. I wasn’t exposed to it. I don’t even look at it as my fault. I was very ignorant.”
Barber believes there are many ways to evaluate wrestlers, and Fargo is just one of them.
“There are a lot of other events you can compete in, so I don’t think Faro is the only measuring stick anymore,” said Barber. “We’re looking for kids who are competing in the summer. If a kid doesn’t compete in anything all summer, it’s a little bit of a red flag. But if he’s going to other events like NHSCA Duals or Junior Duals, that’s important. There are just a lot of opportunities to compete. A guy has to wrestle in the summer.”
According to Barber, summer wrestling isn’t just about competing.
“Kids go to a lot of camps,” said Barber. “We do recruit a few kids who don’t compete as much and they go to camps. There is some value in that. I do think in youth sports in America we’re focused way too much on competition and not enough on learning the fundamentals of the sport. I would rather have a skilled wrestler that is passionate about the sports versus a guy that just competes every weekend but he’s not growing in his wrestling ability.”
With today’s technology, Branch said it can be easier to follow an event — sometimes even from home — but understands the value in attending an event like Fargo.
“I was at Junior Duals this past weekend with my iPad, and without my iPad I probably would have caught a third of the matches that I caught,” said Branch. “Because I had it on Trackwrestling I could see when the kids were up and then I could go straight to their mat and watch them. A lot of times it’s easier to watch it at home. But I also think it’s important to be exposed and to have the kids or the coaches see you there. I think if they don’t see you there it doesn’t have much of an impact.”
Barber sees the networking opportunities as a major benefit to being in Fargo.
“You have 50 states represented by some of the best coaches in the country, so the networking there is awesome,” said Barber. “Usually the kids that jump on our radar are the kids who we learned about from talking to coaches in Fargo. They tell you about a great kid in the state who might be a good fit for your program.”
Kish believes the event’s location gives his wrestling program at North Dakota State an upper hand when it comes to recruiting.
“We get to showcase our university along the way to all these athletes,” said Kish. “That goes a long way for us.”
Kish and members of the NDSU wrestling team help with the event.
“We help staff some of the event as far finding volunteers,” said Kish. “We have people working in security. We help oversee the dorms and dining center. I ultimately try to connect the dots for USA Wrestling and all the state leaders. I get to play a small role, but certainly it’s a USA Wrestling event and they do a great job.”
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