by Matt Krumrie
High school wrestling teams across the country are adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic and facing new and unique challenges on and off the mat.
Below, we take a look at how coaches and teams are adjusting to the oddities of the 2020-2021 high school wrestling season.
In Indiana, the season got off to a normal start on Nov. 2, but it’s been anything but normal, said Danny Struck, head coach at Jeffersonville High School (Jeffersonville, IN). Jeffersonville is located directly across the Ohio River to the north of Louisville, Kentucky, and cross-state competition was just part of a normal schedule. But Kentucky just started its wrestling season on Dec. 14 and won’t start competing until January.
“For us, living on the border of another state has really changed our schedule,” Struck said. “The IHSAA (Indiana High School Athletic Association) has let us do a lot of things other states have not. But for a team in a location like us, it has been a challenge. We are traveling further than normal with our JV teams to get them matches, as we normally just went to Louisville, five minutes away. That has been the biggest change for us.”
Struck and staff are learning to improvise. The team held its first match on Nov. 20, outdoors, on a mat on a tennis court. What was supposed to be a 25-team tournament with teams from five states (Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Missouri, and Tennessee) was cut back to local teams from Indiana only. But this led to the creation of what will be the first-ever Clark County Championships.
“It has forced us to change the way we do things,” Struck said. “We have gotten more creative. We have never had a County tournament before, and we have some new teams in the area. So we are really excited to have our first-ever county championships with the seven teams in our county.”
Jeffersonville wrestlers train in pods of four kids, with no more than two varsity wrestlers in any pod. A wrestler’s backup cannot be in the same pod. Those four in that pod are the only four who can come in contact with each other all week. Anytime it’s above 55 degrees, the team practices outdoors. Practice is spread out with one mat on the gym balcony and two in the wrestling room.
“We’ve had to get more coaches involved in practice because team members will be in any of up to four locations during any given practice,” Struck said. “The kids like the change of scenery, and the coaches like being even more involved. So there have been some positives —some perspectives change. I’ve learned to not be so focused on winning and losing, but being grateful we get to wrestle.”
Struck expected a roster of 82, but with exposure concerns (several wrestlers live with grandparents), the roster now sits at 53. A few kids are practicing only and not going to away meets.
The wrestlers, Struck said, are rolling with the changes.
“Kids are resilient,” Struck said. “They actually like the new way of practice, it made me change how we do things and of course if you’re going to change, you must make it better. I’ve said it before 2020, and I’ll say it now — wrestling is wrestling. Once you get going, it’s just wrestling. Kids get lost in that, and get back to enjoying it.”
In Texas, public schools are governed by the University Interscholastic League (UIL) and that body has set a February start date with the state tournament held in late April or early May. Meanwhile, the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) is allowing individuals and teams to wrestle any point, pending school approval. Another private school governing body in Texas — the Southwest Preparatory Conference (SPC), has yet to decide on the season.
“We have been running non-contact practices since August,” said Tom Trautman, head coach at Bishop Lynch High School (Dallas), the 2019 and 2020 TAPPS state champions. “Our guys have spent a lot of time in the weight room, and their cardio is pretty good at this point. But we are still waiting for our school to approve contact practices. We do a lot of bottom work and shadow wrestling in the neutral position. I put together a plan for practices based upon limited partners, designated areas for pods of wrestlers, and lots of disinfecting of the mats and the wrestlers. I am waiting on approval of that plan before progressing to the next level of practice which would be slow drilling with a designated partner.”
Bishop Lynch usually has a roster of between 55-60 wrestlers, but this year it’s at about 30-35 because of distancing restrictions.
“Normally I’d have a group of about 10-15 freshmen at this point,” Trautman said. “I have three freshmen as of now. That’s a bit concerning as we use that freshman year to teach wrestling technique to those unfamiliar with the sport. I’m a little concerned about how our team will look a year from now if I don’t get more freshmen in soon.”
Wrestlers split between in-person and virtual training.
“Some guys have talked about going to a local MMA/UFC gym to use their facilities and get some mat time on their own,” Trautman said. “I would rather we as coaches manage that contact on campus through our normal practices, but this is our current reality, and the guys will seek out mat time somewhere if unable to get it during school practices.”
The state of Virginia is allowing duals/quads only during the 2020-2021 regular season.
“I would like to have our teams wrestle in tournaments, but I understand keeping it with duals, tris, and quads reduces the number of schools and athletes at events, and the number of people that a wrestler could come in to contact with so for this year I am OK with that,” said Bill Swink, athletic director of Spotsylvania High School. Swink is also the State Chairman of the Virginia State Wrestling Association, the non-profit organization guided by USA Wrestling. He’s provided feedback on all sports, including wrestling, in his role as AD to the Virginia High School League. “At the end of the day, we want to keep the athletes and coaches as safe as possible.”
As expected, there was a lot of rumbling about the reduced number of competitions, no tournaments, and the state tournament being pared down to eight-man brackets, said Swink.
“As time has passed I feel most coaches and wrestlers are just hoping to get an official high school season,” Swink said. “The Virginia Wrestling Association, the state association for USA Wrestling, has already held several events for the high school-aged wrestlers in December and plans to do a few more throughout the winter to give the wrestlers more opportunities if they choose to.”
Most are also in agreement that a chance to compete, and a plan, is better than cancellation.
“Is it the best plan? I don’t know, but it is a plan,” Swink said. “I feel some wrestling is better than no wrestling. I think the only other option for a high school season would be to delay the start of the season until the spring like a few other states have already done. However, when you move a sport out of the traditional season that creates challenges as well. For those serious wrestlers who want more, I feel that VAWA will provide those opportunities for them to be able to compete in the spring and throughout the summer.”
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) recently announced the cancellation of all 2021 winter state championships, including wrestling, and postponed all high-risk sports, which also includes wrestling.
“When examining the feasibility of Winter State Championships, it became apparent that travel and overnight accommodations would create a unique challenge for our member schools,” NYSPHSAA executive director Dr. Robert Zayas said in a press release. “At this time, we must prioritize maximizing student participation without a focus on championship events.”
The Association’s decision to postpone all high-risk sports until authorization is granted was reinforced by the increase in infection and hospitalization rates across the State. The New York State Department of Health has determined the following NYSPHSAA-endorsed sports to be high risk: basketball, boy’s lacrosse, competitive cheerleading, football, ice hockey, volleyball, and wrestling.