Richard Fletcher has coached high school wrestling in Charlotte long enough that he has witnessed the entire evolution of the Holy Angels Invitational wrestling tournament.
He started coaching at Charlotte Latin in 1991 and has seen the local event turn into the largest high school tournament in the state since it was conceived in 1993.
Over the years, he has watched it blossom from eight teams packed into the gym at the old Charlotte Catholic High School (now Holy Trinity Middle School) to more than 60 squads competing on 10 mats strewn across the floor at Bojangles’ Coliseum.
“It’s an event now,” said Fletcher. “It’s one of the better tournaments in the Southeast. It’s something to be able to win it as a team or as an individual.”
This season’s tournament, which was held on Jan. 2-3, was comprised of more than 1,500 varsity and junior varsity individual matches.
Proceeds from the event benefit Holy Angels, a Belmont facility that provides residential care, medical services, and educational and vocational programs for people with “intellectual developmental disabilities and delicate medical conditions,” according to its website. Tournament organizers estimate this year’s donation could reach more than $10,000.
Charlotte Catholic is still the host school and its wrestling coach, Steve Wyniemko, is the tournament’s co-director. As a former Catholic wrestler, Wyniemko competed in the tournament in the mid-1990s.
Having the tournament at Bojangles’ Coliseum, to where it moved in 2012, has a special meaning to Wyniemko. It’s the same venue in which he won a 2A individual state high school championship as a senior in 1997.
Wyniemko has presided over the event’s recent growth. In 2010, the tournament’s name was formally changed from the Cougar Invitational the Holy Angels Invitational.
Most participating teams are from North Carolina but some travel from South Carolina and Virginia. Tournament organizers work with Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority to coordinate hotel rooms for visiting teams.
Though Wyniemko oversees the tournament’s logistics, he relies on Jim Trenner, a former Myers Park High assistant wrestling coach who coordinates over 30 tournaments a year, to recruit teams and develop the brackets for each weight classification.
That process lasts throughout the year as coaches contact Trenner with interest in participating. He says the Holy Angels Invitational’s number of teams has nearly tripled since it moved to Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Private school coaches especially like the tournament because it allows them to compete against public school teams. Wyniemko says that a long-term goal is to have enough teams so that each of the 14 weight classes can have a 64-man bracket.
Wyniemko helps coordinate volunteers, many of which are part of the Charlotte Catholic community. Even Cougar wrestlers help out with game day operations when they are not competing.
The athletes are vested in the tournament’s cause: raising money for the Holy Angels facility. In November, about a dozen Charlotte Catholic wrestlers visited Holy Angels to hang garland and lights for the upcoming holidays.
“It’s pretty rewarding,” said senior Peter LaPiana. “It’s a great tournament. It’s the stiffest competition we’ve faced all year. It’s probably better than the regional, maybe even the state tournament.”
Colleen Turner, mother of Catholic wrestlers John, a senior, and Michael, a junior, helps coordinate an additional 100 volunteers. She says she could still use more. One of her responsibilities is overseeing a hospitality room in which about 200 coaches and officials are fed three meals each of the two days.
Three days before the tournament begins, Wyniemko and volunteers start getting the arena ready. That includes hauling wrestling mats from Charlotte Catholic and nine other area high schools.
Wyniemko says he spent about 14 1/2 hours at Bojangles’ Coliseum on the first day of the tournament and about 13 on the final day.
“This is best chance in the area for a kid to run into the best kids they can wrestle,” said Wyniemko. “To put this together for the best of the best so they can come in and wrestle, it’s ultimately what it’s about.”