Aguiar recalls TOC history | NevadaAppeal.com

Aguiar recalls TOC history

Steve Puterski
sputerski@lahontanvalleynews.com

Former Fallon wrestler Ross Aguiar speaks with a colleague Friday during the Reno Tournament of Champions. Aguiar started the wrestling tournament in 1995.

It is the only tournament to lay claim to legend Cael Sanderson's final loss as an amateur.

A dream to create a national tournament to rival even the powerful Midwest and East Coast was the brainchild of Fallon's own.

In the early 1990s, Ross Aguiar began the process to create one of the toughest wrestling tournaments in the country. After a wrestling career with the Greenwave under Earl Wilkens and ending at Boise State, the former Reno police officer was in need of some luck.

As it so happened, a snowstorm provided a fateful dose.

Aguiar met John Smith, the legendary coach of collegiate powerhouse Oklahoma State University, in 1993 at the Sierra Nevada Classic. The two were stuck for three days together, spoke about their love for wrestling, developed a deep friendship and as a result, Smith invited Aguiar to Stillwater to witness a big-time match between perennial power Iowa and the Cowboys.

"He (Smith) said I don't know what wrestling really is," Aguiar recalled. "I went back there … and it was a huge dual meet. It was a big, big deal. They got in this huge argument and it was great. After that match, he (Smith) was right. I didn't know … I went back fired up to bring an event to Reno and the West Coast."

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From there Aguia was driven to create a similar atmosphere in Reno.

In 1995, the Reno Tournament of Champions was born and the prep talent has flowed through ever since including Sanderson.

Sanderson was the first-ever undefeated college wrestler winning four national titles at Iowa State before claiming a gold medal in 2004. He currently coaches Penn State where he has taken the Nittany Lions to four straight national team titles.

But in 1997, Sanderson suffered one of his only three losses in high school at the Reno TOC.

When discussing the history of the TOC, those in and around get around to bringing up Sanderson's name. It's probably because he is regarded as one of, if not the, best American wrestler ever.

His loss is a badge of honor for Aguiar and the TOC.

"That was the last time Cael Sanderson lost," Aguiar beemed. "There were eight (college) national champions and 30-40 All-Americans came out of that tournament. It was a hell of a group.

Last weekend was the 19th year of the event, but the 20th tournament. There were two tournaments in 1997.

But before the tournament got off the ground, a game plan was needed. Aguiar and Smith conceived an idea to draw the nation's best high school teams to compete in a dual tournament. With Smith's connections in the collegiate world, Aguiar was also able to secure a number of top programs for the inaugural college tournament, too, which still runs today.

As for the prep pups, Aguiar secured commitments from the top 32 high school programs in the nation including Easton (Pa.) High School. Some of the money raised was even used to help fund the teams' travel expenses, one reason why Aguiar said all 32 coaches said it would be the first and last TOC.

"We started off with 32 of the best teams in the country," Aguiar said. "It is and has been and will be the toughest tournament to ever happen.

"Nobody was travelling across the country back then," he added. "We paid for some of their travel, and it took us about five years to pay it all off."

In addition to organizing the event, Aguiar needed a venue. He found one in the Reno Events Center, which at the time, was located south of downtown. After a run there, the tournament moved to the Reno Livestock Events Center for 10 years then back to the new Reno Events Center for the last 9-10 years.

Aiding the cause, meanwhile, are the Silver Legacy and Eldorado casinos, which hold rooms for all teams and parents, but there is a catch. If a team or athlete does not stay at the hotels, they are disqualified from the tournament.

Nevertheless, cheap rates and close proximity are worth it, and Aguiar said the relationship between the hotels and events center is prosperous.

"It's great," Aguiar said. "We are at a good time of year because it's slow for them (REC). They (Silver Legacy and Eldorado) have been very supportive."

The inaugural event, meanwhile, was a success and led to a second, third and so on.

Initially, the entry into the tournament was for only nationally ranked teams or individuals. Although the competition was already stiff enough, Aguiar opted to open the door for those grapplers who won regional titles but for whatever the reasons never opted to compete at a national tournament to earn a ranking.

The TOC exploded in popularity and quickly became the toughest in-season tournament on the West Coast. It grew to between 90-100 teams and 1,500 wrestlers from throughout the country.

Another reason to open registration, which comes with an additional $100 fee for unranked wrestlers, is the popularity of two East Coast tournaments, the Beast of the East (Delaware) and the Ironman (Ohio).

Centered in or near heavily populated areas, those two tournaments consistently draw the top East Coast and Midwest talent. But the Reno TOC also pulls from the Midwest as well as Pennsylvania power Easton and other schools across the country.

"I think that you have to try to get those top 25 teams again," Aguiar said. "I think that should always be the goal. We got to keep it going for the kids, especially the ones that move on (to college wrestling)."

Steve Powell has coach Easton for 31 years and was there at the first-ever tournament and has been back every year since. It also helped that Easton won the first-ever TOC.

This year, Easton finished eighth 134.5 points behind Poway (Calif.), who won its second straight team title with 209.

"For our kids, it's a huge event," Powell said. "They get to face kids they don't know a whole lot about. There are many opportunities for our kids."

The long-time coach said because of his team's travel and exposure to the West Coast, numerous grapplers have signed with programs such as Nebraska and Oregon State.

"We get a lot coming out here," Powell said. "Our parents and fans love coming to Reno, gambling and watch wrestling."

Powell's team works year-round to raise funds needed to travel to Reno. Easton typically flies out the Tuesday before, wrestles on Friday and Saturday, watches the college tournament on Sunday, then returns to Easton.

But it's not all business for the Rovers. Smith said each year the team takes a trip to Lake Tahoe where it has become a tradition for a number of his athletes to jump into the frigid water, much like the Polar Bears.

"It grows your program," Powell said. "They grow a whole a lot … and realizing the commitment they have to make to compete at this level."