Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, high school wrestling in Maine has been in a battle for its survival.

A physically and mentally demanding sport, wrestling had already seen a 29 percent decline in participation over the 10 years ending in 2018-19. Then the pandemic canceled 2020-21 season.

Now the closest of all close-contact high school sports has returned this winter, as the state is experiencing a record surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and the highly contagious omicron variant is taking hold.

Wrestlers in Maine are required to wear masks during their matches. After considerable debate, a proposed vaccination mandate for wrestlers was scrapped just before the start of the season.

Some wrestlers say they got vaccinated in anticipation of a vaccine mandate. At least one interviewed for this story said he would not have participated this winter had there been a mandate. But many say they understand why it was considered in light of a virus that is transmitted by respiratory droplets.

Mostly, the wrestlers are simply grateful to compete once again. Even with the mask requirement.

“You can’t breathe as well (with a mask). It’s sticking to your face. But a couple of months ago we didn’t even know if we were going to have a season so I’m taking it,” said Karter Crosby, a junior at Thornton Academy who wrestles for the Biddeford/Thornton cooperative team.

“I’m just excited to be back,” Cheverus senior Marshall Fowler said. “I’m going to make the most of the season. It’s wrestling after all, mask or no mask. I’m just ready to get back out there on the mat.”

Lude Zombo, a member of the Biddeford/Thornton Academy cooperative team, wrestles York’s Nate Foote during a meet at Biddeford High. Maine was one of eight states, among the 49 that sponsor high school wrestling, to cancel the 2020-21 season. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Since the pandemic began, officials in Maine have struggled with how to offer wrestling. In 2020-21, after delaying the start of the season multiple times, the Maine Principals’ Association ultimately decided not to allow competition. Maine was one of eight states, among the 49 that sponsor high school wrestling, to scrap its season.

This fall, less than three weeks before practices were to begin, the MPA sent an email to schools that wrestlers would need to be vaccinated.

Coaches, who had already lost one whole season, cried foul. They were concerned the vaccine mandate would cause many wrestlers to drop out. They also questioned why wrestling would be the only high school sport with a vaccine mandate. The MPA reconsidered and on Nov. 18 dropped its vaccination requirement.

“We were on the brink of having half the team gone because they were not vaccinated,” said Sanford coach Nate Smith, who is vaccinated. “In talking about vaccinations, my statement was clear. I let them know I am vaccinated and I believe it is safe, but I am not this kid’s parent. I can’t make that decision for them.”

Smith said he and other coaches felt it was necessary to “go to bat” for their non-vaccinated wrestlers, many of who were freshmen and sophomores unable to act opposite of parental wishes. “It made the superintendents consider the ramifications it would have on our sport,” Smith said.

Camden Hills is believed to be the only school in the state that is requiring its wrestlers to be vaccinated. Long-time wrestling coach Pat Kelly said that decision cost him at least six athletes who decided to not wrestle rather than get a vaccine.

Cheverus High’s Matthew Bellatoni tries to pull Biddeford/Thornton Academy’s Seth Beyea to the mat during a wrestling meet in mid-December. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

But Kelly is not griping about the school’s decision, even though some wrestlers on his 16-member team are still limited to conditioning because they are not fully vaccinated. Instead, Kelly is embracing every positive.

“We truly are. It’s a happy team. We’re having fun,” he said. “The guys and gals are easy-going (and) work hard. The room is smelling a bit and we teach them what the (wrestling) room can teach them. This is a place where 16 kids come together to teach each other to get better.”

Without a statewide vaccination requirement, individual school districts have made their own decisions as the pandemic has surged.

Camden Hills decided the principals association’s initial vaccination requirement was best.

“When the MPA made their original announcement that they were going to do that, then we included that as part of our plan. When they removed it, we decided to stay with it,” Camden Hills Athletic Director Jeff Hart said.

AT SOME SCHOOLS, IT’S VACCINE OR TESTING

Other school districts including, Portland and Biddeford, have adopted an either/or requirement for all of their student athletes: Get the vaccines or participate in pooled testing. Camden Hills is using that approach for its non-wrestlers.

In York, co-head coach Bryan Thompson said over 90 percent of his wrestlers are both vaccinated and taking part in voluntary pooled testing, greatly reducing the likelihood that a single positive case will spread widely.

York High senior Will Orso would have supported a vaccine mandate for high school wrestlers. “It would have been nice to have that because that would mean we wouldn’t have to wear masks,” he says. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

York senior Will Orso, one of the top heavyweights in the state, said he would have supported universal vaccination for wrestlers.

“It would have been nice to have that because that would mean we wouldn’t have to wear masks,” Orso said. “But, really, at the end of the day, it’s out of my powers. I just want to be able to keep wrestling and whichever way they choose I’m going to participate.”

Crosby, the Biddeford/Thornton wrestler, would have sat out the season rather than get vaccinated.

“I don’t have the vaccine personally. I wasn’t going to wrestle (if it had been mandated),” Crosby said. “I’m thankful they changed that rule and they gave me the opportunity to wrestle this year.”

Crosby, like other wrestlers interviewed, said he understood why a vaccination mandate was considered.

Karter Crosby, a Thornton Academy junior who wrestles for Biddeford/Thornton Academy cooperative team, says he would have sat out the season rather than get vaccinated. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“I mean, it is a closer contact sport so I understand why they would think that. And I can respect that,” Crosby said. “I mean, it is a serious virus. They just want everyone to stay safe.”

A QUESTION OF EQUITY

Had the MPA gone ahead with its initial plan, wrestling would have been the only sport to require vaccinations.

“I don’t think that’s fair,” said Cheverus’ Fowler. “I would have been fine, but I do have teammates and I know a lot of other people in the wrestling community who are not vaccinated and would have not wrestled.”

Fowler is not worried about getting infected by an unvaccinated opponent.

“Not at all. I’m not really scared if I’m going to get it,” he said. “I mean, I’m young. Most people my age, if they do get it, maybe they lose their taste or their smell.”

In Maine, 25 percent of all reported COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began have been people under the age of 20. Since September, 4,366 cases have been reported in the 15-19 age group. Two of the 1,468 deaths in Maine were people under 20.

Since wrestling practices began on Nov. 22, Maine’s seven-day average of daily COVID cases has risen nearly 40 percent to record levels. Hospitalizations have increased over 72 percent in one month and are now twice as high as during last year’s holiday season.

Cheverus High’s Marshall Fowler says the proposed vaccine mandate was unfair: “I would have been fine, but I do have teammates and I know a lot of other people in the wrestling community who are not vaccinated and would have not wrestled.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

That surge is likely to continue given that the highly contagious omicron variant is predicted to soon gain dominance in Maine.

Aaron Foley, a Noble High senior, does not discount the danger of the virus. He just doesn’t think wrestling significantly increases his risk.

“Just walking around in your every day life you can see so many people. You can see 200 people a day and if one of them has COVID, you can get it,” Foley said. “I feel like wrestling, compared to every day life, wrestling is one-on-one, and you’re with a team, so it’s maybe 40 people max with the two teams.”

Foley’s teammate Alexander Marchand said he got vaccinated “as soon as I could.” Not out of fear of sickness but to make sure he didn’t miss time with his team or in school. Per state guidelines, vaccinated students who are close contacts of a positive case do not need to quarantine from school or extra-curricular activities.

AVOIDING QUARANTINES

“Last year I had to quarantine multiple times during the lacrosse season. It put me back on the roster. It put me back in everything,” Marchand said. “So I knew if I didn’t get the vaccine this would happen nonstop through the rest of the school year. Clearly, the only reason I got (vaccinated) was so I wouldn’t have to quarantine.”

Marchand said the vaccine has demonstrated its effectiveness – in terms of avoiding both quarantine and sickness.

“Kids just sitting right next to me and they didn’t know they had it. All of them got sick. All of them tested positive. But I didn’t have to quarantine,” Marchand said. “I didn’t get sick.”

Noble junior Derek Cote, a state champion as a freshman, said he got his first vaccine in September.

“I had a feeling that it was a possibility that they might say, ‘You have to be vaccinated to wrestle,’ so I got it,” Cote said in between matches during a double-dual meet with Sanford and Scarborough. “I was a close contact at school last Thursday and if I hadn’t been vaccinated I wouldn’t be wrestling today.”

Cote and the rest of the wrestlers are wearing masks, both in practice and in competition. According to an informal poll conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations, Maine is one of the few states requiring masks during competition.

“It’s not ideal but they’re doing their best,” Cheverus Coach Jason Berriault said. “The kids are getting tired when they do conditioning, but (the masks) stay up all right with the head gear.”

Berriault admitted he wonders about the masks’ effectiveness.

“Say I’m wrestling a kid with COVID. What percent does this mask prevent me from getting COVID? Ten percent, maybe?” Berriault said. “I mean, I get wearing them on the benches and everything. … But I don’t care. I’ll wear a mask every day as long as they get this opportunity.”

Athletes and coaches are grateful to return to the mat, and to have a season with state championships scheduled for February. After a year away, there is a thankfulness to be back to the singular competition that defines and brings together the wrestling community.

Kelly, the Camden Hills coach, sounded gleeful as he talked about the positive vibe in his training room and at the school’s home opener.

“My gosh, the whistles were blowing for wrestling in Camden Hills’ gym for the first time in two years. I just sat back and enjoyed it,” Kelly said.


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