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What we know about high school wrestling in 2020-’21: From mask mandates to cancellations, the season will have a much different feel

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What we know about high school wrestling in 2020-’21: From mask mandates to cancellations, the season will have a much different feel

On the eve of their first practices, Pennsylvania high school wrestling coaches are grappling this week with a new statewide recommendation that winter athletes wear masks for both practices and competition this upcoming season.

PIAA executive director Dr. Robert Lombardi said on Wednesday that the organization is seeking more clarification from the Pennsylvania Department of Health for all winter sports, but particularly for swimming and wrestling where masks could be deemed unsafe.

The organization’s attempts to get the clarification it needed have so far been unsuccessful, Lombardi said, so the exact nature of the recommendation is unclear. Lombardi added that schools will make their own decisions whether or not to enforce the mandate.

“In wrestling and swimming, there’s a health and safety factor,” Lombardi said. “Getting a hand in that mask in the grasp of a move with torque of a neck is very, very serious. We hope to have some guidance from the Department of Health on those two sports.”

Lombardi said the PIAA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee had taken into consideration other potential issues with wearing masks for sports that are heavy on aerobic activity. He said the committee has discussed the mandate, but he declined to comment on the nature of those conversations.

Camp Hill wrestling coach Chad Gallaher said he tried wrestling wearing a mask this week and came away from the experience with concerns.

“It was all I could do to breathe with that thing on, and I’m not moving at the same speed as my wrestlers are,” he said. “I think it’s going to create another problem. It was very challenging, to say the least. I think the boys are going to be pulling their masks down trying to catch their air.”

There’s also a potential issue in keeping the mask secure and allowing it to serve its protective purpose, which is far from a guarantee in the flow of a match.

“I’ve tried wrestling with a mask on, but it falls off every time,” Red Land coach Brian Baglio said. “I don’t know how that’s going to fly. It’s ridiculous.”

TOURNAMENTS VS. DUALS

There has been contention over two recommendations from the PIAA Wrestling Steering Committee when it comes to tournament wrestling. The committee recommended a maximum of eight wrestlers per weight class and for tournaments to be formatted in a way that doesn’t require overnight stays.

As things stand right now, Lombardi said those recommendations exist only for regular-season tournaments and are not a given for postseason competition. The dialogue on all winter postseason events is just beginning, Lombardi said, so those determinations have not been made.

The PIAA Wrestling Steering Committee suggested at its last meeting on Nov. 4 that two additional meetings be scheduled to share information and address “the difficulty committee members are having with identifying a postseason format.”

Between PIAA recommendations and strict guidance for distancing and creating separate warm-up areas for wrestlers, few individual tournaments are left standing.

The Cumberland Valley Kickoff Classic, Carlisle Holiday Tournament, Beast of the East and Bethlehem Holiday Classic are among the individual tournaments to be canceled this season. King of the Mountain is now tentatively planned as a dual meet event, and the Powerade tournament is being relocated to the Monroeville Convention Center to better comply with safety guidelines.

The writing on the wall is clear: A bulk of early-season wrestling will make a heavy pivot from individual tournaments and large dual-meet events to more head-to-head events.

The PIAA has also recommended limiting team events to duals, tri-meets and quad-meets, but duals could ultimately be the format of choice.

They will be easier to maintain proper social distancing, provide proper warm-up space and clean mats. Perhaps more importantly, they will also be the easiest to reschedule on short notice.

Given the potential for postponements and cancellations throughout the regular season, the more flexible the matches are, the better off all schools might be.

“From day to day, we’re not going to know what we’re going to hear tomorrow,” Gallaher said. “Are we even going to have a season tomorrow? It sounds promising, but cases are not getting any better. The governor could ax us at any moment. Our motto is to treat everything like it could be our last practice or last match.”

OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS

Wrestling programs are also working through two other noteworthy recommendations for safely practicing and hosting competitions. The PIAA has cleared the way for schools to either have an intermission for their duals to allow for proper cleaning or to utilize two mats and alternate bouts between them.

Coaches are also recommended to practice in “pods,” where groups of 3-4 wrestlers stick together for workouts and drills. With adjustments and creativity, practice schedules can be adjusted to follow those guidelines.

No two strategies might be the same, given a school district’s priorities, number of wrestlers and size of the room.

“We’re going to end up making our practices three hours long,” Carlisle coach Joe Wilson said. “We’ll split and have the lighter guys do running, lifting and conditioning first while the heavier guys are in the room, then we’ll switch them out. We’ll give ourselves a little more space in the wrestling room to try and appease the social distancing.”

G-A PULLS THE PLUG

Greencastle-Antrim was the first Mid-Penn Conference school to withdraw from the 2020-’21 wrestling season, citing COVID-19 risk in releasing a statement on that decision last Friday. That news landed with a thud in the wrestling community, not so much because of the Blue Devils’ stature as a program, but perhaps out of fear for setting a dangerous precedent.

Greencastle-Antrim has struggled to field a full lineup, but coach Brian Booze had hope last season that a young roster and rebuilding efforts could help the program push its numbers in the right direction. The school’s decision to pull the plug on the season likely harms that effort and gives current wrestlers no options.

Because of COVID restrictions, the choice to join a neighboring program is also likely off the table. All the Blue Devils wrestlers can do is train privately or play another winter sport. Even so, Booze is confident that the program can get back on course as soon as it’s given a green light.

“I’m not entirely happy with the decision, but I understand it,” he said. “We’re all just trying to put our heads down and plow through this. It’s not a death sentence of any kind. I fully believe we’ll be back when this stuff is over, hopefully next season.”

Greencastle-Antrim athletic director Vicki Ritchey said last week that the PIAA categorized wrestling as a higher risk sport because of the close, constant contact between its competitors. The PIAA also released recommendations for practice and competitions that likely would have been difficult for the school to follow.

Booze said the team’s practice space would be located in the primary school, meaning coaches and wrestlers would have to leave the high school for practice and potentially contaminate an area used by kindergarteners and first graders.

Booze also expressed doubt in his practice space and whether he could run things in “pods,” as the PIAA suggested.

All of this is happening as COVID cases are skyrocketing all across Pennsylvania, which creates an uncertain launch for winter sports, which are due to begin practice locally this Friday.

“In the end, there’s people way higher up than I am who are going to catch all the flak if things go badly,” Booze said. “I’m disappointed in the school’s decision for the kids, but in this kind of scenario, with so many unknowns, I don’t know that I could have made a decision.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Mid-Penn Conference announced on Wednesday a revised schedule for winter sports that pushed back the start of competition to Dec. 18 and established a maximum number of competitions at 18. All Mid-Penn teams were cleared to begin practicing Friday, Nov. 20.

Whether teams can follow those guidelines could depend on the circumstances of individual school districts.

For example, Wilson said his program is unable to begin practice until Dec. 1, which could impact the Thundering Herd’s ability to begin competition on Dec. 18 because a minimum of 15 practices are required before opening competition.

“Unless something changes, we’re going to be starting almost a week and a half behind everybody else,” Wilson said.

That could be the theme of the season as teams and wrestlers look to make the most of an uncertain situation. The aim for all of them will be to abide by the rules and give wrestlers their best possible shot at competing in some form of postseason.

Along the way, coaches will have more factors than ever to consider, and athletic directors will likely be busy all season long shaping and reshaping their schedules. The circumstances will be different, but the end goal will be the same: to help wrestlers develop and prepare for a postseason.

“The whole schedule thing is going to be difficult on some athletic directors, but we’ll be trying to scramble and get kids as many matches as we can get them to prepare them,” Chambersburg coach Matt Mentzer said. “We go into every season with a focus on the end of the year. It’s not going to be any different this year.”

That’s true in concept, but in practical terms, the whole season will be a scramble to reach the finish line.

Even then, no one can say for sure if or when the finish line will come into focus and what it might look like.

“It’s going to change weekly at this point,” Baglio said. “I normally do a monthly calendar ahead of time. I just told my parents, I’m going to do it weekly and update them every Sunday night.”