University of Southern Maine senior Peter Del Gallo enjoyed another standout season on the mats, qualifying for the NCAA championships for a third consecutive season. However, the coronavirus outbreak forced the cancellation of the championships, cutting his season short. Contributed photo/USM athletics

There were less than 24 hours to go until the start of the NCAA Division III wrestling championships in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Peter Del Gallo was going through a final practice when he heard the announcement over the public address system.

The championships were canceled. And Del Gallo’s heart sank.

“I immediately started crying, right on the mat,” he said.

The cancellation in response to the coronavirus outbreak ended national championship bids for University of Southern Maine wrestlers Del Gallo, a 125-pound senior from Gardiner, and Brad Beaulieu, a 133-pound junior from Waterboro.

“It’s a huge blow,” USM coach Mike Morin said. “The sport is such a big part of their life, and they put everything into it. For it to kind of be ripped away from them like that, it’s really unfortunate.”

Morin said he felt bad for both of his wrestlers, but particularly so for Del Gallo, who was a senior this year and hoping to earn the same national title his brother Dan did three years before.

“For a guy like Peter, he doesn’t have another year. That’s his senior year,” Morin said. “Unless the NCAA does something to rectify that situation, that’s kind of how he would end his career, and it’s just super unfortunate.”

Del Gallo said it was difficult to accept the situation, both in the moment and several days later.

“It was heartbreaking. Very upsetting,” he said. “(I’m) missing out on the opportunity in my last year to compete and leave it all out on the national stage. It was just hard. I worked so hard this entire year.”

Del Gallo was the fourth seed going in and one of two All-Americans in the field, and Morin liked his standout’s chances.

“No doubt about it. I think he had a very legit chance to be a national champion,” he said. “Every guy entered in the bracket has a chance, but I felt really good.”

In the middle of the week, however, headlines began popping up everywhere announcing sports cancellations and suspensions. Del Gallo just hoped something wasn’t imminent.

“I was worried, but I figured since everybody had already flown out to Iowa, that they wouldn’t just send us all back,” he said.

That optimism was short-lived, and when the announcement came, so did the feeling of finality.

“My career was coming to an end,” Del Gallo said. “And not being able to be part of a team anymore, with guys I’ve wrestled and trained with for the last four years. (I was thinking about) all those experiences.”

“His reaction was almost shock and disbelief,” Morin added. “For a guy like him, it was just how sudden it was. It’s not like it was a week before. We were there. We had stayed in the hotels. It was our second practice since we’d been out there, we were in the venue. It was happening.

“For it to be canceled as abruptly as it was, I think it was more shock than anything. It’s uncharted waters, as far as everything that’s happening right now.”

Del Gallo said he hopes the NCAA will make a decision to help athletes redeem their championship opportunities, and Morin said he has the same wish. The NCAA announced that spring athletes will gain an extra year of eligibility, but there has been no announcement for winter athletes, who got to play the bulk of their seasons before the cancellations hit.

“If there is a chance, we’re going to explore every option as far as if we need to make an appeal or look for a hardship waiver, something like that,” Morin said. “Whatever we can do on our end, we’ll do.”

For now, however, it’s a disappointing end for a pair of wrestlers with big ambitions and impressive stories. Beaulieu, who has two years of eligibility left, qualified despite missing most of three months with a separated shoulder, and Morin said he was never at 100 percent after he returned.

“I think it just gives him perspective,” Morin said. “He’s going to come in next year and he knows he can qualify for this tournament, having done it. He was injured the entire season, so for him to qualify with a pretty significant injury shows that he’s capable of competing at a high level.”

For Del Gallo, if nothing changes, it’s the cap to a career that saw him go 133-10, reach three NCAA tournaments and be named All-American.

“He goes down as one of the best to ever compete for USM, for sure,” Morin said. “I think many people thought he might have chosen other schools, but when he chose USM, I think that made a lot of people realize ‘Hey, we are a legitimate program.’ “

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