By Mike DeFabo
Times West Virginian
FAIRMONT— Wrestlers are a different breed of athlete.
No offense to the football and basketball and soccer players out there, but the sport requires a certain toughness and willness to fight through physical and mental adversity that is unparalleled in other competitions.
This much was evident when looking around the Winner’s Choice tournament on Friday and Saturday, where muscular grapplers struggled through three grueling rounds, many limping off to the training table seconds after the final whistle.
Behind the scenes, just slightly removed from the five wrestling mats and the boisterous fans at Woody Williams Armory, the hard work and commitment of those athletes was paralleled — or maybe even eclipsed — by a dedicated team of organizers.
For about 30 years, John Delligatti and his wife Karen have been instrumental in planning and running the yearly tournament that many consider to be one of the most competitive bracketed tournaments in West Virginia.
John Delligatti, the older brother of Fairmont Senior wrestling coach Mark Delligatti, started working on it when he was fresh out of high school. At the time it was just an eight-team tournament called the Pepsi Invitational.
Over the years, the name changed and the event grew, drawing Class AA and AAA teams from Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.
“This is a premier tournament in the state,” East Fairmont coach John Geary said. “(John) and his brother put on a great tournament.”
This year more than 30 teams and nearly 400 wrestlers competed. But more impressive than the quantity of wrestlers is the quality of athletes.
“Generally out of the top eight, many of those guys will place in the state tournament in West Virginia. I think last year we had 30 place-winners from Winner’s Choice in the state tournament and about 10 state champions. It’s a big deal,” Mark Delligatti said. “This tournament is noted as being one of the top bracketed tournaments in the state.”
Often times the matches during the two-day event will be some of the same ones wrestling fans will see in the state tournament. Or in some instances, the competition will be even better than what is at the state tournament.
“In some of these weight classes, because you’ve got (Class) AA and AAA together, it could be tougher than what you see at the state tournament,” Mark Delligatti said. “That’s the way we like to see it.”
John and Karen Delligatti’s unwavering devotion to the event is largely to credit. But after more than three decades, the couple is beginning to transition the event over to Mark Carvillano and his wife Tracy.
“I’m just one of those guys who is always there to help,” said Mark Carvillano. “Last year Mark said, ‘Hey my brother needs help.’ So I showed up to help and he said, ‘Thanks; you’re taking over!” And that’s how it was.”
Like a tag-team match from the studio wrestling world, the Winner’s Choice tournament is now the Carvillanos’ beast to tackle.
They have willingly accepted the challenge. Planning began all the way back in October, and plenty of long hours were spent working the brackets to ensure the tournament went off without a hitch.
Still, Mark Carvillano admits that it will take some time to gain the same expertise that the Delligattis racked up over the years.
“He just knows everything about how to run a successful tournament,” Carvillano said. “I’ll have to do it for 10 years to understand everything the way (John) does.”
Email Mike DeFabo at email@example.com or follow him on twitter @MikeDeFaboTWV.