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VIDEO: Big times at the Big Bear

A total of 33 teams are competing at the Big Bear wrestling tournament in Cass Lake this weekend. (Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 2

CASS LAKE -- Day No. 1 hadn’t yet wrapped up and the air was already electric in the Cass Lake-Bena High School gymnasium Friday afternoon. Throngs of wrestlers, students, family and friends crowded the bleachers and navigated the halls during the 2013 Battle at Big Bear.

The two-day wrestling tournament hosted by Cass Lake-Bena-Blackduck Schools draws thousands of spectators to the Bemidji area resulting in a boom to the economy each year.

“It’s a real boost to the Cass Lake area,” said Jerry Cleveland, Cass Lake-Bena wrestling coach from 1976-98. “This is really a prestigious tournament.”

Across Minnesota, seventh- through 12 grade students from 33 mostly hyphenated teams hit the road with their families to hit the mats in Cass Lake -- and they all need somewhere to eat, sleep and gas up before heading home.

“Bemidji’s close, there’s the Palace Casino and two new hotels in Bemidji, which are convenient,” Cleveland said. “Plus we have great concessions here at the school.”

Cleveland estimated approximately 1,200 attendees each day for the Big Bear.

Matt Fuller of Fargo sells T-shirts to Keyanna McDonald and Elizabeth Liljenquist of Aitkin, Minn.

Matt Fuller with 3X-Gear said the tournament definitely affects the community. Every club generates revenue, especially after the tournament is over.

“Dad buys them something if they win,” Fuller said. “Mom buys them something if they lose.”

3X-Gear of Fargo, Pepsi NEI Bottling of Bemidji, Western Bank of Cass Lake and the United States Air Force are co-sponsors, along with the schools.

Cass Lake-Bena Athletic Director Mike Hanson said the competition gives everybody in the area a boost.

“It gives us a chance to show off our school and my kids,” Hanson said.

Hanson credits Cleveland, Ron Milbrandt with Cass Lake-Bena and Steve Bechtold from Blackduck with creating the event 12 years ago. Cleveland is on the Big Bear Committee, which is headed by Bechtold.

“Without the help of Bemidji and Fosston High School staff, this tournament couldn’t happen,” Hanson said.

Cleveland explained that wrestling, or as he says “wrassling,” really picked up in the 1990s. About that time, larger cities pushed for additional weight classes which bumped the number up from 11 classes to 14. This shift caused smaller schools with fewer students to “co-op” together to compete.

“Sure it would have been more practical to go with Bemidji, but we’d lose our small-town school atmosphere,” Cleveland said. “It’s been a real good run with Blackduck.”

During the rest of the school year, wrestling teammates are opponents in other sports. Cleveland said it doesn’t seem to create controversy, rather, they have fun with the rivalry.

“The tournament brought two schools together that are very different in many ways,” Hanson said. “This is a chance for many of my kids to shine, not only wrestlers.”

One of the student groups showcased was the Indian Education organization, which set up a “Rez Kitchen” in the high school culture room.

“You can’t beat fried bread,” Hanson said.

In keeping with the woodsy backdrop around the school in Cass Lake, pine trophies etched by the Cass Lake-Bena Tech Team will be awarded on Saturday after the tournament’s final match.

“I’m still a BCLB guy. I root for my team,” Cleveland said. “But I’m rooting for Bemidji boys, too.”

Cleveland said the Bena Cass-Lake-Blackduck team has set it’s sights high this year -- they want to make it to the state tournament.

Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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