Forty years ago, Keith Whelan and Steve Garland became the first Granite City athletes to earn All-American honors in the USA Wrestling Cadet/Junior National Championships.
Whelan and Garland finished second and third, respectively, in the freestyle division of the 1975 tournament.
Now, there are 14 Granite City wrestlers who earned All-American honors at the Cadet/Junior National Championships.
Granite City coach George Kirgan is one of those wrestlers. He earned all-American honors in 1997, 1999 and 2000.
Last month, Chris Santiago had a chance to be on the list of Granite City All-Americans when he competed in the Cadet/Junior National Championships at Fargo, N.D. But he left North Dakota empty-handed.
“Chris Santiago wrestled and made it to the top 16 in the country in Freestyle and Greco, but he didn’t get that All-American status he was hoping for,” Kirgan said. “So he fell a little short. But he had a great off-season. He was a freestyle state champ and a second-place finisher in Greco state.”
Santiago’s trip to nationals was part of a busy summer for the Warriors’ wrestling team. Granite City also competed in a tournament at Archer High School in Lawrenceville, Ga., outside Atlanta, participated in a camp at Graham High School in St. Paris, Ohio, north of Dayton, and wrestled in the Freestyle/Greco state tournament.
“It was definitely a busy summer,” said Kirgan, who will be in his fourth season as Granite City coach this winter.
While they were at Graham High, the Warriors participated in a camp called State Champ Camp.
“We took 15 boys out and we hit it hard,” Kirgan said. “We had a great time.”
Graham High is an Ohio state wrestling powerhouse. The Falcons won their 15th consecutive state championship this winter.
Then, the Warriors headed to Georgia to compete in the 30-team Archer Duals.
“That was good,” Kirgan said. “We had a lot of matches in that.”
Archer High is one of the top wrestling teams in Georgia, winning three straight dual team state championships from 2013-2015. Archer has a 79-match winning streak and hasn’t lost a match since January 2012.
“They wrestled in our holiday tournament two years ago,” Kirgan said.
Every summer, Granite City wrestlers travel to the Cadet/Junior Nationals in North Dakota to get a chance to earn All-American honors. The Warriors haven’t had an All-American since 2011, when Cole Whitford placed eighth in Greco.
“We’re in a drought,” Kirgan said. “We have to change things up. We’ll have to try to get better.”
In 2010, the Warriors had four wrestlers who earned All-American honors. They were Whitford, Justin Valencia, Jake Gregerson and Casey Gushleff.
Scott Penny, Sal Woods, Kevin Venne, Sam Perkins, Dean Perkins and Kris Whelan were the other Granite City wrestlers who have received All-American notice.
Kirgan placed second in Freestyle in 1997, fifth in Greco in 1999 and fifth in Greco and seventh in Freestyle in 2000. He said earning All-American honors at North Dakota is a big goal for Granite City wrestlers during the summer.
“I think it gives you the confidence to compete with anybody,” Kirgan said.
Kirgan said the team raised money for the trips to Georgia, Ohio and North Dakota by having fundraisers and selling T-shirts.
“That definitely costs a lot,” Kirgan said. “This traveling is expensive, but that’s what you’ve got to do in order to compete.”
Kirgan said Jared Skaggs, a member of the junior varsity wrestling team last winter, turned in a solid off-season.
“Jared Skaggs probably had more dedication than anyone this summer,” the Granite City coach said. “We have a point system which for every practice you do, every lifting you come to, every tournament you go to, every camp you go to. He’s killing everybody in points. He has had a great summer.”
Josh Harsh, Joe Garcia, Justin Hart, Wilyonde Bell and Mitchell Millsap were among the other Granite City wrestlers who have been training this summer.
Kirgan said his wrestling team will continue to prepare for the 2015-2016 season, which starts in three months.
“We still have guys lifting Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday,” Kirgan said. “We’re going to wrestling on Wednesday and Friday trying to get these guys back in shape.”