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Grappling With Wrestling During A Pandemic

(Photo by Avena Photography)

Grappling With Wrestling During A Pandemic

No other sports season has faced uncertainty in the middle of a worldwide pandemic quite like Kansas high school winter sports. There is no net separating teams or equipment to protect against body-to-body contact. Yet, despite all the uncertainty wrestling coaches and student-athletes have been able to maintain optimism for a competitive season, but hopes remain high of reaching a postseason that will drastically force even the top-ranked wrestlers and teams to stay competitive.

Wrestling, by nature, is a high contact sport with constant, close, physical contact between competitors. It not only makes competitions difficult in a “socially distanced” society, but also practices. Before the first weigh-in’s, coaches had to find ways to adjust their practice routines.

“Practices are sectioned off and partners are expected to stay with the same partner as well as stay in their designated area,” said Labette County High School wrestling coach Chas Thompson. “

“We have always cleaned the mats daily, but now clean them before and after practice. Our wrestlers use disinfect wipes and we conduct temperature checks daily,” commented Chase County High School wrestling coach Mitch Budke.

That commitment to extra sanitation and modified practice routine aided the Bulldogs in avoiding a team quarantine.

“Our [practice] groups are no larger than 3, recently we had one of our groups quarantined, but avoided the whole team being shut down.”

While being sectioned off and committed pairs allow the season to continue, Olathe West head coach Tyler Rodden mentioned how the changes affect his student-athletes in competition.

“We have had to keep our wrestlers in small pods for practice, which is difficult because it is a priority of ours to get diversity in our wrestling partners to see all sorts of styles, even during practice.”

While many coaches have shared with one another how they are conducting their practices, some teams are also effected by local city or county mandates.

“We are in Douglas County, so we need to wear a mask at all times, including live practices and events,” said Free State High School head coach Randy Streeter.

“Some tournaments you have to wear a mask while wrestling and some you don’t,“ added Rossville Girl’s Wrestling Head Coach Brandy Lowe.

Manhattan wrestling coach Robert Gonzales added, “Is it a challenge to do this? No! We want to wrestle.”

Similar to the coronavirus itself, named COVID-19, quarantine has affected every team throughout the eastern half of the state differently.

“We went from a top 4 team to not scoring in duals,” said KC-Piper wrestling coach Todd Harris.

“We were figuring on bringing home the first 1st place state plaque in school history. Now, due to transfers and health concerns for family at home, we lost our entire starting line-up other than two kids from last year. We have starting freshman who shouldn’t be there,” said Harris via a telephone interview.

Just like in fall activities, Kansas winter sports have succumbed to a changing schedule. Similar to volleyball, wrestling’s postseason will look drastically different come postseason competition.

“Some teams did not get to start wrestling in November and held off until December or even second semester,” said Kansas Wrestling Coaches Association President Doug Vander Linden.

“Schools across the state are scrambling for events to attend or host as everyone’s schedule is in a state of flux. The only consistent thread across the board has been ‘change.’ This has been hard on a lot of programs and on a lot of coaches.”

One of the hardest-hit sports this season in the middle of a global pandemic is girl’s wrestling. Rising in popularity in Kansas, as well as the nation, girl’s wrestling teams are finding it difficult to find replacement tournaments for their student-athletes.

“Most of the girls meets have been canceled so most of us with a girls program are scrambling to find or create competition for our girl’s team,” said Fredonia Girls Wrestling head coach Charl Hill.

With the flux in needing tournaments and host sites, some schools have embraced the need.

Olathe West’s Rodden commented, “We have done a lot of hosting when in the past we haven’t.”

Wrestling’s postseason format will look noticeably different compared to year’s past.

“The concept of Regionals and State will not exist in 2021 as they have in the past,” said KWCA president Vander Linden. “This year we will have a State Tournament Series.”

This includes districts for 4A and 3-2-1A. Also, Girl’s wrestling is now divided into two divisions. The latter catching many by surprise including the KWCA president.

“We thought we were still a few years away from this growth point, but it got accelerated due to the need to host smaller events in the State Tournament Series.”

“That has surprised me and the girls on my team showing them that they have to work that much harder to get to what they want,” said Lowe.

Districts will serve as the first qualifying event for these classes and Girl’s Wrestling. Regionals will serve as the first qualifying tournament for Boy’s Class 6A and 5A. Regionals will serve as the second qualifying tournament for the other classes. Sub-State will serve as the second qualifying tournament for Boy’s Class 6A and 5A and the third qualifying tournament for the remaining classes and Girl’s wrestling.

State will now be a single day, 8-wrestler bracket, and not a 2 day event with a 16-wrestler bracket.

“My biggest concern with the post season is if 1 wrestler ends up being positive in a qualifying tournament, kids who qualified to move on will miss the next tournament due to quarantine,” said Blue Valley wrestling coach Kale Mann.

While there is the concern of a spike in quaratine’s due to COVID-19 over the winter break, many of the coaches who responded felt confident that not only will wrestling continue in the early part of 2021, but that there will be state wrestling champions crowned.

“The concern is still there, we will see what Christmas break does to it,” commented Nemaha Central wrestling coach Mark Mayberry.

“These years will always be remembered and the big bright things that happen in this dark time will be the highlight of it all,” said Lowe.

“I feel confident,” said Budke. “Wrestling people have always taken great pride in keeping their mats and practice environments clean. Our new protocols are an extension of those practices.”

“Confident and comfortable,” concluded Streeter.

A more through breakdown of the 2021 KSHSAA Wrestling format can be found by clicking here.

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