They call it Strong Island wrestling -- and for good reason.
The largest sectional teams representing Nassau and Suffolk in the history of the state wrestling championships walked onto the mat during the opening ceremonies early Friday morning and paraded around the eight mats in the Times Union Center.
An impressive Nassau contingent all dressed in forest green and white uniforms came in 25 strong, including the 15 sectional champions and 10 wild-card entrants. And as the crowd rose and applauded the regional qualifiers, an army of Suffolk wrestlers, the defending state champions, in navy blue and white, were introduced.
Suffolk qualified an unheard of 34 wrestlers, including its 15 champions and a tournament record 19 wild cards the most since the inception of the wild card system in 2007.
Most of the wrestling community has embraced the wild-card system, which ultimately gives competitors, who lose in the sectional tournament, a second chance in the state tournament, if they accumulate enough quality points during the season to advance.
Others, like legendary Huntington coach Lou Giani, who stepped down in 2008 but remains with the program as an assistant, were never in favor of the change. "I like the old traditional way of winning a sectional tournament to earn a spot in the state tournament," Giani said. "That's really it. This wasn't broken. Why did we change it? We lost the purity of the tournament. Now you can lose in the section and still win the state."
Giani lamented on the old system of lose and go home and no second chances for wrestlers. But he also had some mixed feelings. "I do lean hard toward the old traditional way but I do like seeing more kids getting the chance to wrestle in the state. It's not necessarily a bad thing," he said.
Most coaches are clearly in favor of the addition of wild cards, especially those from Long Island, who felt it was time to recognize more of the top wrestlers in the region.
"I thought the opening ceremony clearly showed the strength and the quality of wrestling on Long Island," said 11-year Brentwood coach Ralph Napolitano. "To see all those guys who qualified for the opportunity to win a state title was a testament to the talent in our area. For years, our second best guy in any weight could come upstate and earn a top finish in the state tournament. These kids go all year round and put their heart and soul into the sport and it's good to see more of them get opportunities."
Freeport coach Russ Cellan, who serves on the state wrestling committee, said there had to be changes in the tournament format when the state added the Division II state tournament in 2004.
"When we went to two divisions it changed everything and we needed to fill the Division I bracket because all of the small schools were now wrestling in Division II," Cellan said. "So we opened it up to wild-card entrants. I liked the traditional format -- to win the county was the only way to qualify. This takes some of the bite out of winning the sectional tournament because you could wrestle the guy you met in the sectional final again in the state tournament. But this was necessary."
Some wrestlers have made the most of the wild card. Two Long Island wrestlers that didn't win the sectional tournament went to the state tournament last year and won the crown. Connetquot's Sean McCabe at 120 pounds and Syosset's Evan Kappatos at 285 pounds were both beaten in their respective sectional tournaments in 2012 but earned wild-card qualification and came upstate and won titles.
Heading into Saturday night's finals, two other Long Islanders were out to duplicate the achievement of McCabe and Kappatos. TJ Fabian of Shoreham-Wading River at 126 and Steve Mills of Sachem North at 220 pounds both came in unseeded as wild-card entrants with second chances.
Mills fell short, 3-2, but Fabian pinned his opponent in 5:51 to earn the state crown.