Volunteers help make 31st Annual Sand Devil Classic a big success

Dante Gracia, Christian Franklin, Tyanna Specht, Kyran Keisling and Pam Penrod-Budd work behind the scenes to make the Sand Devil Classic a success.

Every January for the last 15 or so years, Tyanna Specht cashes in a few of her vacation days. But she doesn’t go on vacation; she gets to work. 

Specht is one of the numerous volunteers who put in long hours to help make the Sand Devil Classic the pride and success it has become. 

The Sand Devil Classic is one of Page’s biggest, busiest events of the year, with hundreds of wrestlers and dozens of coaches traveling from five different states to compete in one of the top wrestling tournaments of the season. 

The event has happened every year since 1991, with two exceptions: It didn’t occur last year because of COVID-19 closures, and a few years ago when a blizzard swept over the Southwest, closing multiple roads and making travel to Page impractical. 

After three decades in operation, it has developed a reputation throughout Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada of being one of the top-notch, most-competitive tournaments of the season. And because of that, it draws the most talented wrestling teams from a five-state region. 

“We attract some of the toughest teams,” said Sand Devils Head Wrestling Coach Keisling. “And the level of competition is very high. And because it comes just a few weeks before the state tournament, it gives us a preview of who might medal at state. This event is very important to wrestling community.”

Every year, 25 to 30 teams participate in the Sand Devil Classic. Each team brings 12 to 15 wrestlers, three coaches, a bus driver and a team manager. Having more than 500 visitors flood into Page during the slowest part of the tourism season is a big shot in the arm to the local economy.

“This tournament has a huge impact on Page’s economy,” said Coach Keisling. “All those people need a hotel room. All those people go out to eat, and a lot of them buy souvenirs to take home. And a lot of teams take a little extra time to visit some of our attractions, and they go back to their communities and tell their friends and family what a great place this is.”

The Sand Devil Classic was founded by Jesse Cheff in 1991. Cheff now lives in northwest Montana, near Missoula. He has plans to move back to Page this May. He still follows Sand Devils wrestling via Facebook.

Cheff founded the Sand Devil Classic his first year as wrestling head coach. Prior to that, he’d been an assistant coach for 14 or 15 years under John Tkalcevic.

“All the years John and I coached together, we traveled to a lot of schools, but there were still a lot of schools with amazing wrestling programs we didn’t get to wrestle against,” said Cheff during a phone call last week. “The main reason I wanted to start our own tournament was so we could invite some of those top-notch teams. We wanted to showcase our wrestlers, our wrestling program and our great facilities and show them that we were as competitive as any.”

Cheff invited seven teams the first year of the classic, from Utah, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, a tradition that continues today.

“It was a complicated deal that first year,” said Cheff. “It took a lot of legwork, a lot of phone calls getting it started. But it went great and continued to get better. After the third year, it took off. We got a lot of positive comments. After that, any school with a good wrestling program called us, asking to be invited.”

Coach Keisling now oversees the Sand Devil Classic, and during the course of the event, he can be seen pacing like an elephant in a cage as he checks in with his coaches, his wrestlers, the volunteers, the sponsors, the fans and the other teams.

“I was reminded this weekend why this matters, why so many people work so hard to put this on,” he said. “I saw one of the wrestlers who had just lost a match crying in the hallway, and I was reminded that this is important to them. They put in a lot, too, and it hurts to lose. And there are also all the kids who make it to the top of the podium and I see how happy and proud they are. It’s important to us because it’s important to them.”

While the wrestlers are battling it out in the two gyms, another big competition is occurring behind the scenes in the hospitality room, one of the greatest points of pride for the Sand Devil Classic. Every school that hosts a wrestling match has a hospitality room, and all of them try to outdo the others. Page’s hospitality room takes up two rooms located between the main gym and the pool gym. It’s a place where coaches, referees, staff and volunteers can rest and relax. 

And eat.

Power strips are plugged into every electrical outlet, and from the power strips, a ganglia of cords extends to dozens of crock pots and warming pans. When one crockpot, pan or dish of food is finished, it’s taken away and another put in its place. During the course of the two-day tournament, parents, grandparents and other family members are seen carrying in trays, pots, pans and boxes of food. Breakfast items are served in the morning, lunch items are served during midday, and dinner items are served in the afternoon. The dishes included main courses, side items and vegetables, and a large variety of drinks and desserts. 

“Everyone eats like kings in the hospitality room,” said Coach Keisling, “and that’s all thanks to the generosity of our families.”

All the food is made by volunteers, most of them moms, sisters, aunts and grandparents of the wrestlers. Most of the hospitality room volunteers and food providers came into Page’s wrestling community when their sons or daughters wrestled at the middle school and high school. 

A great many of the volunteers began volunteering at the Sand Devil Classic when their sons and/or daughters joined Page’s wrestling community. Such was the case with Specht, who received some additional coaxing from her friend Georgie Mowbray. At the time, Mowbray ran the hospitality room, something she began when her own son began wrestling. 

“I remember asking Georgie if there was anything I could do to help, and she told me to bring some food for the hospitality room,” Specht recalls. “She told me, ‘I don’t care what you make, but make a lot of it.’”

It wasn’t long after that that Specht took over the hospitality room, and she’s been doing it ever since. She starts making the phone calls to volunteers and sponsors about two months before the tournament. “This simply wouldn’t happen without the parents and the sponsors,” Specht said. “The parents make ALL of the food, and our sponsors are the backbone of the hospitality room.”

This year, Specht was joined in the hospitality room by two of her kids, Dante Gracia and Christian Franklin, who quietly went about restocking food, keeping the space clean and washing dishes in a camp-style dishwashing area set up in the breezeway outside the gym, not far from the roar of a packed gym shouting for wrestlers competing on four mats at the same time. 

“This place is kind of like a reverse-mullet,” said Dante. “Party in the front, business in the back.”

Four of Specht’s kids – Logan, Sean, Dante and Hayden Gracia – went through Page’s wrestling program, beginning as Dust Devils under the guidance of Keisling and Penrod, and all went on to win state champion or runner-up titles when they were in high school.

Logan was state runner-up in 2008. Sean was state champion his sophomore and junior years, and state runner up his freshman and senior years. Dante was state runner-up his senior year, and Hayden was state champion his junior year. Specht’s youngest daughter, Christian Franklin, took state last year as a member of Winter Guard. 

In its 31 years in existence, the Sand Devil Classic has earned a reputation for excellence and has a fan base that spreads five states wide. One of those fans is Dallas Lowry, head wrestling coach for Canyon View High School in Cedar City, Utah. He’s been coming to the Classic for 15 years, and he’s always impressed by how efficiently the tournament runs and how welcoming it is to him and his team.

“We look forward to this every year,” he said. “I love everything about it: from the way it’s organized and run, and the hospitality room is one of the best. 

The Canyon View wrestling team has a Sand Devil Classic tradition of its own. Every year, during the Saturday break, the team goes to the Dam Overlook and takes a team picture.

Another area where the Sand Devil Classic shines and prides itself is its awards. Each year, the classic gives out the Quinn Keith Award and the Cujo Award.

The Quinn Keith Award is given to a wrestler who loses their first match of the tournament but remains undefeated thereafter and goes on to stand on the podium. It’s named after former Sand Devils wrestler Quinn Keith, who went on to become a Marine and lost his life fighting in Fallujah during the Iraq War. The award is given out by his mother and brother, Shannon and Skylar Keith.

The classic’s second big award is the Albert “Cujo” Yazzie Award, which is given to the tournament’s outstanding 98-pound wrestler. The award is named after Albert “Cujo” Yazzie, who was an outstanding Sand Devils wrestler. He was the 3A state runner-up in 1984 and state champion in 1985, 1986 and 1987. Yazzie passed away in 2003.

It’s late Saturday afternoon. In the gym, the trophies have been handed out, the mats have been rolled up, the tables have been taken down. Weary wrestlers are boarding buses that will take them back to Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. In the hospitality room, Tyanna Specht and her crew are packing up crock pots and coolers, carrying away pizza boxes and bags of garbage. 

Specht’s children have all graduated. She no longer has any kids left in the wrestling program. So why does she keep volunteering? Why does she take a week off work and sacrifice vacation days to help with the Sand Devil Classic?

“I do it out of love for our community,” she said. “I do it out of love for Kyran [Keisling] and Matt [Penrod] and all they do for the kids in the wrestling program. I know it has given so much to my own children. It has made them who they are, and I’m very proud of who they are. Kyran and Matt were always there for my kids, so as long as Kyran and Matt keep doing the program, I’ll be here for them.”

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