BY BOB LIPSKY
High school wrestling barely made it last season.
The PIAA Wrestling Championships ended March 7. By March 12, the entire sports world was shut down by what we have learned is a once-in-a-century pandemic. Basketball and swimming were the first sports affected, but then the entire spring season was called off.
With fits and starts, we made it through reduced summer and fall seasons and were forging ahead to try to begin the winter season.
The regular season lasted one day.
When Gov. Tom Wolf shut down sports until at least Jan. 4, the wrestlers got their first real bitter taste of what COVID-19 has done. Sure, they had been following protocols like wearing masks, but now they had to deal with the uncertainty of whether there would be a season at all.
How different is the world today than nine months ago? The 2019-20 wrestling season was the last high school sport in the state to have an uninterrupted, complete, “normal’’ season and postseason. Nothing has been the same since.
Vaccines provide hope, but the immediate outlook remains bleak.
Wrestling doesn’t work as far as social distancing. The guys on the bench can be spread apart, but the hand-to-hand, ear-to-ear, collar-elbow-tie nature of the sport is different than, say, golf or tennis.
Coaches who have replied with their rosters prior to the shutdown for the upcoming season preview stressed how they have adapted.
“My thought about masks and COVID is this: ‘If you love your sport, you will do anything to allow you to continue the sport,’ ” Tamaqua coach Jim McCabe said prior to the shutdown. “The boys have been dealing with the masks very well, and we will continue to work through this crazy time.’’
“Crazy’’ is a word that came up repeatedly from the coaches. Nobody has ever seen anything like COVID-19 before, and hopefully we’ll never see anything like it again.
“This year is crazy to say the least, but we are chugging ahead so we are prepared for our season,’’ North Schuylkill coach Corey Fetterolf said prior to the shutdown. “We have implemented many safety protocols to help limit the spread of COVID-19. We staggered our start times for junior high and varsity so they wouldn’t cross paths with one another even though we have separate rooms!
“We have a sanitation station outside of our room for wrestlers to use periodically during practice or anytime there is a break in the action,’’ Fetterolf added. “We are working out with masks. Every wrestler gets screened before entering practice each day.’’
At Pottsville, the Tide wrestlers work out with the same partner in the same circle every day, masks are worn as required and there’s a hand sanitizer station outside the wrestling room.
Pottsville even moved its practice mats to the track upstairs at Martz Hall. The makeshift wrestling “room’’ provides better ventilation.
As others do and have done in other seasons, Pottsville coach Gary Keener also stresses personal hygiene with good eating and sleeping habits. Every spoke on the wheel contributes to athletes staying healthy and strong.
While we wait for the go-ahead to resume practices and games, the Schuylkill League came up with another revised schedule. Instead of two dual meets against each division opponent, that has been cut to one meet each for a total of five league dates. The individual league meet has been nixed, with a league team playoff in the works, pandemic permitting.
Several options for the team playoffs are being considered, with a four-team tournament — the top two teams in each division — the most likely scenario.
“We wanted to give the schools the flexibility to go out and schedule what they can (non-league) and get those matches,’’ said Williams Valley athletic director and Schuylkill League wrestling chairman Ben Ancheff, a former All-State wrestler himself. “We wanted to have a Schuylkill League champion. We went with the team option.’’
For many years, the Schuylkill League paired the division winners for an overall league dual-meet championship. That lasted until 1999, when the PIAA Team Wrestling Championships began. With team states and individual sectionals on back-to-back weekends in February, that left no time to hold a league championship meet.
Shamokin won the last three league titles, defeating Tri-Valley 32-29 in 1996, Tamaqua 49-15 in 1997 and Panther Valley 40-18 in 1998. Tri-Valley made the league finals in 10 straight seasons (1987-96) but did not win any of them. North Schuylkill (4), Pine Grove (3) and Shamokin (3) won Schuylkill League titles during that 10-year span.
At its meeting Tuesday, the PIAA voted to allow teams to return to practice Jan. 4 and postponed the team wrestling championships to a date to be determined after the individual state meet.
“The kids have been doing a great job practicing under the guidelines,’’ Lehighton coach Floyd Brown said prior to the shutdown. “Wearing a mask to wrestle and work out certainly has been a challenge, but these guys have been excellent with it. They know that in order to have a season, that is what we have to do at this point.’’
Added Halifax coach Brent Hoover: “Flexibility will be the name of the game this year to be able to pull off a wrestling season.’’
Lipsky is the wrestling beat writer for The Republican Herald. Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-628-6012