By Brian Jerzak
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Every summer about this time one of the most unique wrestling experiences in the state takes place outside of Litchfield Minnesota. On the banks of Lake Ripley, the Litchfield wrestling program hosts an open wrestling tournament for school-age wrestlers called Summer Slam. While the proceeds go to help the wrestling booster club, the primary purpose behind the tournament is to promote the community and promote the sport of wrestling.
Previous to Litchfield head coach Dan Buker joining the staff, organizers saw a tournament run in Mound-Westonka near a lake and felt it was a unique experience they could use in their community.
“Some of our club members saw that and thought they could do that on Lake Ripley which is our local lake in Litchfield,” Buker said. “They proposed it to our club, and they decided to give it a try.”
It took a few years for the program organizers to get a handle on the logistics of the tournament.
“(The first year) they rolled out the mats right next to the beach and didn’t have any tarps over the top so the sun was beating down and the mats got too hot,” Buker explained. “They tried to pour some water on the mats to get the mats cool, but it was a bad ordeal.”
The organizers adjusted before year two.
“They ended up finding some tarps and by year three we contacted the local armory, and they gave us some netting to use. Now we are able to put some shade on the mats.”
Buker knows some day weather has the potential to force a cancellation, but so far every tournament has had the weather cooperate.
Even with the struggles in the first couple of years, the tournament has consistently drawn 200 athletes to Litchfield with a high of 250 entrants last year. The field of wrestlers usually consists of athletes from area communities but have had wrestlers come from all over the five state area.
While Buker is not sure why the format started the way it was, another unique aspect of the tournament is it is a folkstyle, takedown only tournament.
“I think they wanted to offer a unique opportunity. You wrestle two, two-minute periods with a one-minute break. It is just a unique thing for the sport.”
Scoring is one point per takedown, and a ten-point lead is a tech fall. The wrestlers pay a ten-dollar entry fee, go through skin checks, are weighed in and placed into groups of four based on age and weight. They have four mats going at all times with each four-person group in a rotation wrestling on the same mat.
Summer Slam is not just an individual tournament.
“We also offer a team tournament,” Buker explained. “You need five wrestlers on a team. For the teams, we score them by placement and then the number of takedowns. You could be a senior in high school and a kindergartner competing on the same team. It doesn’t matter with ages as long as you have a group of five.”
Part of the tournament draw is everything that is happening around the wrestling. It is not uncommon for a wrestler to get his hand raised in victory, jog off the mat and jump right into Lake Ripley.
“It is a unique experience for everybody,” Buker said. “Typically the Meeker County Fair is going on at the same time, there is a huge playground right there, campgrounds within walking distance, and there is a beach right there. We have music playing during the whole tournament. It is a relaxed atmosphere. We have full concessions. Some years the Armory brings a climbing wall and some years we have a bounce house.”
Over the years the logistics of the tournament have improved.
“It takes at least twenty people to get the nets set up the night before,” Buker continued. “We bring the equipment down the night before and then the day of we set up the mats. It takes about twenty-five people to set up and then seventy people to run the tournament.”
At this point, the tournament has little problem finding volunteers.
“We have a group of people who are passionate about the sport of wrestling in Litchfield who are willing to pitch in.”
Many community members have been especially vital to the tournament. Year in and year out Clint Penk, Scott Jones, Dick and Roxy Penk, and Jay and Paulette Liestman take the lead running the tournament.
“I can’t say enough about these people,” said the Dragons’ wrestling coach. “They have done a great job of promoting and running this over the years.”
From its Spartan beginnings, each year running the tournament has become less and less of a problem.
“I think people have gotten to the point where they know what to expect, so it is not a huge thing to sell to a new volunteer,” Buker mentioned. “Everyone one knows their role and what they run. The tournament runs itself in a way.”
Litchfield alumnus, Dan Fitterer donates burgers to be grilled, and they run a full concession stands during the day. The wrestling program usually makes a small profit, but for the most part Summer Slam is held as a celebration of wrestling and a celebration of the Litchfield community.
“This is not our main fundraiser,” said the six-year head coach. “We basically do this for fun. We are just trying to promote the sport of wrestling. We are trying to promote Litchfield.”