By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN
Save for a handful of workers readying the arena for today's action, Fort Hays State University's Gross Memorial Coliseum was quiet by 10 p.m. Thursday.
That would change dramatically in a few hours.
GMC came to life in the dark hours of early morning today when hundreds of wrestlers and their coaches converged on campus to weigh in for the start of the Class 3-2-1A state wrestling tournament.
The tourney, which officially began with today's 9 a.m. first-round matches, continues through this afternoon and Saturday.
The state tourney often is a return home for several wrestlers and coaches, who grew up wrestling in the area, either in high school or at Fort Hays, or both.
The return to GMC always is special for Dan Schmidt, head coach at Hoisington High School who grew up in Hays.
Schmidt, a 1976 graduate of Thomas More Prep-Marian High School, won the 126-pound state championship in Class 3A in El Dorado his senior year, then came home to GMC to claim the grand state title as well.
Schmidt brings with him this year a pair of brothers, including one of the unbeatens in the tournament.
Junior Brandon Ball -- undefeated in 40 matches this season -- will be going for his third consecutive state title at a different weight class, this year at 132 pounds.
While the Ball brothers are similar in size to Schmidt during his high school days that began more than 40 years ago, Schmidt said that's where the similarity ends.
"Oh, they're much better than me," Schmidt said of Ball and his younger brother, Jonathan, a freshman who also qualified for state, in the 138-pound weight class.
No matter who fans are following during the two-day tourney, they always are in for a treat, Schmidt said.
"Some outstanding wrestling here," he said.
"Something we always look forward to," Schmidt added, in reference to coming to state.
So, too, does the city of Hays.
"We love the wrestling tournament, and all these events," said Jana Jordan, director of the Hays Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"It's a time to showcase our university and our community, and we hope (fans) enjoy our restaurants and hotels," Jordan said. "Any time your child or grandchild makes it to state, you hope the experience here is really a memorable one, and we want to make that an enjoyable experience."
The city of Hays will be abuzz for several weekends to come.
The annual state wrestling tournament is the first of several consecutive big events that draw hundreds of fans to town. Next week will feature the Western Kansas Youth Wrestling Classic held at GMC, as well as the Sunflower Spelling Bee across campus at Sheridan Hall.
That will be followed by the Class 1A, Division II state high school basketball tourney the week of March 10-15, and the annual Special Olympics Kansas Basketball and Cheerleading Tournament is set for March 20 to 22.