“Is this a false sense of hope?” Noble wrestling coach Kevin Gray asks of another delay to the season. “And, there’s so many other avenues open right now. It’s hard to tell kids, ‘Hey, be hopeful for a season’ that at best is only going to be a couple of dual meets.” Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

The start of the Maine high school wrestling season has been delayed again.

The Maine Principals’ Association’s Wrestling Committee opted on Wednesday to put off making a final decision on the fate of wrestling during the coronavirus pandemic until reconvening on Feb. 22, which is the day when the already delayed season was supposed to start.

“We know the guidelines haven’t changed. It’s still a high-risk sport,” said Mike Bisson, the MPA’s assistant executive director who serves on the wrestling committee. Bisson said as the committee discussed the situation, they felt, “Why do we need to make a decision today? Let the coaches and kids get together to do socially distanced training, and maybe by the end of February it could change.”

Tuesday’s announcement from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) that it no longer endorses stratifying sports by risk levels was a factor in delaying the decision. The NFHS now supports using community infection rates as the primary tool for risk assessment regardless of sport.

“The NFHS news, that was kind of a shock to people on the committee, something that they didn’t expect,” said Scott Lewia, a committee member and Wells High’s wrestling coach.

The MPA and the state’s advisory Community Sports Guidelines use a low-, medium- and high-risk system for classifying sport. Wrestling is deemed a high-risk sport. For high school teams, that means they can have “team-based practice with physically distanced group activities.”

The MPA Wrestling Committee did make one small change. Teams can now gather for conditioning practices five days a week. Previously, the MPA had limited practices to three days a week.

“One thing with this pandemic, things are constantly changing, it’s unfortunate we are in this situation. We have decisions made on the updated material that we have or are getting now, but that’s just the nature of the beast,” said Kevin Ryan, athletic director at Oxford Hills.

Bisson said the Community Sports Guidelines would need to be changed for a season to take place.

“I’m not sure that we are going to have a competitive wrestling season,” Bisson said. “I don’t foresee a reason for those guidelines to dramatically change until we get outside in the spring.”

Lewia said the extension will help promote participation in team-based conditioning and, possibly, give state health agencies time to consider the new NFHS standard for risk assessment. Other coaches wondered if it was just delaying the inevitable.

“At least for right now, they are kicking the can down the road. Now we are in wait-and-see mode,” said Erick Jensen, the Mt. Ararat/Brunswick coach.

“Is this a false sense of hope?” asked Noble Coach Kevin Gray. “And, there’s so many other avenues open right now. It’s hard to tell kids, ‘Hey, be hopeful for a season,’ that at best is only going to be a couple of dual meets.”

If there is a season, it should not extend into spring, where athletes already lost an entire season last year when spring sports were canceled in the early days of the pandemic, Gardiner Coach Matt Hanley said.

“Our window is closing. We might be able to get a quick four-week season in, if we start in March. I don’t see them pushing this out any later than that,” Hanley said.

Gray contends wrestling can be done safely.

“I think it’s actually safer than a basketball game. In wrestling, you only interact with one other opponent,” Gray said. “In basketball, there’s what, about 10 kids (per team) rotating in and interacting with everyone. Refs don’t have to get close and they’re gong to be masked.

“USA Wrestling has been going on with their freestyle events this whole time and there’s been no mass outbreaks.”

Gary Dolloff, Mountain Valley’s coach, agreed wrestlers can compete safely.

“I think wrestling, you send two people to the mat, you can disinfect them before they go out there and those two are out there with the referee. You look at a basketball game, 10-20 people can be interacting with each other. I think wrestling can be a safer sport,” Dolloff said.

Like football coaches who saw their sport’s season replaced by 7-on-7 flag football last fall, Dolloff expressed frustration that Maine wrestlers were left waiting while their counterparts in other states are competing.

“We have more to stand on with the national level (getting rid of the risk categories), but I didn’t feel very strongly they were going to let us wrestle. I have been coaching for 30-something years, and one of my former wrestlers (Todd Austin) coaches in (Plymouth), New Hampshire, and they are wrestling. They’re already doing meets; it’s just frustrating one state over is doing it and we are not doing it,” Dolloff said.

Lewia and Gray said they know some of their wrestlers are also traveling to New Hampshire to participate in practices at private clubs.

Bisson said the wrestling committee has prepared safety protocols in the event competition is allowed.

“Would I love to see some dual meets happen? Yes. But we’d need some things to change for that to happen,” Bisson said. “We have aligned ourselves consistently with those (Community Sport) guidelines. I’m not sure we want to be at odds with our state health agencies.”

VOLLEYBALL TO START FEB. 22

Bisson confirmed volleyball will begin indoor practices on Feb. 22, as previously planned. There will be minimal crossover with both the end of the winter season and the likely start of spring sports. A 10-match regular season against schools from within the same or adjacent counties will run March 5 to April 9, with a week of  possible league or regional postseason to be completed by April 16.

“There’s no ideal way to do that wedge season without impacting the other sports,” Bisson said. “This provides the opportunity for schools to work out on their own how to share gym time.”

As is the case this winter for indoor sports, face masks will be required at all times, spectators will not be allowed, and athletes will be expected to arrive ready to play, as use of locker rooms is discouraged.

Eli Canfield of the Times Record, Travis Lazarczyk of Central Maine Newspapers and Nathan Fournier of the Sun Journal contributed to this story.


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