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High school sports

Pinned down by pandemic: Wrestlers reflect on lost mat season

In their words, 'disheartened' student-athletes voice thoughts about being sidelined due to COVID-19
By Ken Waltz and Mark Haskell | Mar 26, 2021

If there is one group of student-athletes who has felt left out, lost, perhaps even abandoned, in the high school sports world during the unpredictable, year-long pandemic, it is those who make or break their success on the wrestling mat.

None more than the upperclassman who love slipping into a singlet, snapping on headgear and stepping onto the mat for an often grueling, one-on-one duel of strength, stamina, technique, skill and experience.

After their season was pinned down for the count in February after weeks of uncertainty, teenage athletes echoed the same sentiment: utter disappointment.

That sense of loss was acute for the upperclassmen, especially seniors, from the five Midcoast high school programs — namely, Medomak Valley of Waldoboro, Belfast, Mount View of Thorndike, Camden Hills of Rockport  and Oceanside of Rockland.

That is because those upperclassmen lost a chance to build on or end their high school careers, in the case of seniors, with an opportunity to compete for league, regional and state titles, as well as perhaps advance to the coveted New Englands.

The 2020-21 high school wrestling season never got off the ground due to safety concerns surrounding COVID-19. There was hope among those connected to the sport some semblance of a pandemic-altered season, such as was held for soccer, field hockey, football, golf and cross country in the fall and basketball, skiing, swimming and ice hockey in the winter, would materialize.

But that never happened for a variety of reasons, the most acute being wrestling, due to its inherent nature of close, sustained, person-to-person contact and perhaps with an environment more prone to transmission of the virus, was deemed "high risk."

In the end, it was deemed the pandemic safety requirements and protocols from the Maine Principals' Association and other state health agencies could not be met.

The decision to cancel the season left more than 100 area youngsters sidelined.

Additionally, the Pine Tree Wrestling League halted its season last March at the start of the pandemic and did not hold a campaign in 2021, it may be a double-whammy, as that feeder program also may affect future high school teams.

Wrestling is not the only Maine high school sport that lost its season in the past year as baseball, softball, track and field, tennis and lacrosse was not held in the spring of 2020 and indoor track never got off the ground in the winter of 2021.

Of course, that does not lessen the hurt and soul-cutting disappointment for mat athletes or coaches.

Longtime Mount View coach Hamilton Richards said the loss of his beloved sport has "been surreal." That is because he often has a small group and this year had five experienced seniors to lead the Mustangs.

And, of course, there is more that was missed.

"All of them stood a strong chance of having good seasons with solid postseason finishes," he said. "Both Emma Fonger and Zach Ward were extremely likely to set school records, or in Zach’s case, enhance some of those records. With a full season, Zach was in range of breaking brother Mark’s all-time win record as by the end of his junior year he was one match ahead of Mark at the same time in Mark’s career. The three girls also would have put us in possible contention for a girls state title (if the MPA allowed team scoring for the tournament) as they are all tough and Hailey [Wood’s] shoulder is in much better shape this year than it was last."

Richards said other seniors had shown steady improvement. "The sad part is in each case, they’ll never get that senior year back and that’s a hard pill to swallow; even knowing that steps to deal with the pandemic had to take priority. We’ll never know exactly what they could have done …"

The coach said another problem he sees from this lost year is different than other high school mat programs that have larger teams and depth to lean on.

"This non-season is going to have immediate long- and short-term consequences for us. We were already light on underclassmen — two to be exact and both were first-year wrestlers last season. With this year off, there will be significant rust and there’s also a chance they may not come back as carving out time for wrestling instead of snowmobiling, ice-fishing and the like for rural kids is a challenge. This non-season also didn’t afford us opportunities to recruit more or assimilate middle school wrestlers coming up. And we always lose a portion of them between MS and HS during normal times. On top of that, last year’s middle school season didn’t get far and then no season for them this year. And their numbers weren’t great before COVID… I fully expect both our middle school and high school programs are going to be hurting, low-number, low experience teams for a few years with this break. There are some years where we could have absorbed this much better; unfortunately this stretch isn’t one of them."

Hamilton said having coached the program, at different levels, for more than 30 years, "it was very odd not coaching this winter too." However, he said working for the National Guard full-time with all the COVID response certainly made him more exhausted than usual as he recently was working on a full year of sustained emergency operations.

"There’s no way I would have been on my 'A' game as a coach if we’d have had a normal season this year," he said. "The kids would have had to drag me out of the bleachers, prop me up in a chair and work on getting me a coffee IV at tournament. Even an abbreviated season would have been rough with everything else going on. So for me, the lack of a season was a needed breather, but it was devastating for the wrestlers and I believe it’s going to be detrimental to our program for the next few years or more.

I think we are all going to have a much deeper appreciation for 'normal' from here on out … when we finally get there, right?'

The Courier Publications/VillageSoup sports staff send out questions to wrestlers to see if any had thoughts on what has transpired. A handful responded and answered the following questions:

What are your thoughts on the cancellation of the high school wrestling season? What was the most difficult part of the season for you? The weeks and weeks of practicing with no clear answer on whether there will be a season or not? Having what you could do in practice be so limited? The final decision coming down? Break down a typical practice and the types of things you’d be able to do? Do you play a spring sport and, if so, how happy are you it appears things will be all systems go for full participation in spring sports after losing all of last year? And, what are your plans after graduation? College? Joining the work force?

The following are the thoughts — and voices — of a handful of area upperclassmen who were unable to hit the mats over the winter:

Nicholas Cox, Medomak Valley, senior

"I am very disappointed in the cancellation of our season. It feels as if the Maine board for athletics cares little if not none about the loss of our season. The lack of a season, while allowing me to continue studying hard for my class and upcoming finals soon, has left a rather large hole in my heart and in my applications to colleges.

"It was Nolan Grubb's, Gavin Readinger's, Damian Henry's and Ian Doughty's last chance in high school to get any sort of recognition from the state for achievements made during a wrestling season. While I and Gavin placed rather well last year, Nolan Grubb was looking forward to the chance to be the big dog in whatever weight division he fell into. I know Damian Henry, while it only being his fifth year and not placing rather well earlier in his high school career, was definitely making strides towards becoming a regional- and state-level athlete. And Ian Doughty, above all else as a incoming second-year wrestler for Medomak Valley High School, was sure to make some sort of startling come up in this upcoming season. He had improved drastically all throughout last season and I have no doubt in my mind that our couches Billy and Jed were going to continue to make him improve in wrestling. I wouldn't have been surprised if he placed all the way into competing in states.

"The overall lack of any sort of action from anyone in Medomak Valley or seemingly no action towards starting the team practices was in the simplest of terms, Irritating. You can talk to anyone on the team and will get the same response. While other schools were starting sports and wrestling practices our wrestling team had heard neither hide nor tail of anything about the season other than an alpha weigh in that continued to become postponed and lead on until February. It would have been fantastic to at least practice even with no real promise of a season but we didn't get even that this year. The final decision was rather unsurprising yet still very disappointing.

"During a typical practice it consists of generally 20 minutes of cardio that is then followed by either some sort of cardio weight movement around the cafeteria and then followed by some sort of drills and once those are done we finish practice with live and situational wrestling. Usually to finish off the practice we then do neck bridges while the coaches talk about the next day and if there is a meeting they will speak on that.

"Normally I play a spring sport of track, however, with all of the recent rigamarole of our lack of wrestling season I am rather disheartened with school sports in Maine and other reasons, such as focusing on school and trying to pay for college. I will not be participating in a spring sport. My plans after high school this year are to go and attend college at The Citadel in Charleston South Carolina."

Nathaniel Porter, Belfast, senior

"I think wrestling was swept under the rug and forgotten about this year. Those who procrastinated about making the decision throughout the entire season are pretty lazy and pathetic individuals. The decision about wrestling should’ve been made right away like basketball. Wrestling is the most physical sport here, but it is the easiest to contact trace with it being one-on-one."

"The most difficult part was dealing with the inconsistency and laziness of the [Maine Principals' Association]. For example, basketball was able to have a mostly regular season, but wrestling was not aloud to even practice as a whole team until a decision was made. I witnessed on several occasions both varsity and junior varsity basketball practicing together in one space. Our entire wrestling team has less people than just the jayvee basketball team.

"During a typical practice we would go over the motion of things, get a team lift in on some occasions, and Friday mornings hit the pool for a workout.

"I do not play a spring sport, instead I continue training on my own. Even after having both football and wrestling taken away, I do hope the best for those who take part in spring sports. My plans for after high school are to join the Navy after an 8,000-plus-mile motorcycle tour across the country with my dad.

"I also think it’s important to note our principal and ADs support for the wrestling team. They really went above and beyond trying to make the best of things. They were able to organize skiing trips once a week this winter for anyone interested. Even paying for rentals a tickets. This was a new experience for me and it was a great one. Our coaches also never gave up on us."

Zack Ward, Mount View, senior

"I find it a reasonable outcome for the pandemic for sports to be canceled. Though I find it unfair that we had to cancel while other sports, such as basketball, remained. As a wrestling community, we are fairly well committed to wrestling. Most of us senior wrestlers would've done whatever it took to have our senior year. Precontainment before every tournament, with a COVID test every time.

"Our school nor coach wanted to risk having any chance of spreading COVID. As the school didn't allow us to practice, and our couch remained wanting us to be sure health and symptom-free, we varied away from the practice. Though in good maintenance we kept up with cardio, an important key, though we lacked the technical skills and warm-ups as a team.

"In a typical practice, we would either start with a warm-up or jump right to cardio, running the halls, the stairs, the gym, and game with the middle school an hour or two even before our own practice. Us upperclassman would often help out the middle school coach with his athletes before our practice, then when our time for practice came, we were all outfitted up, shorts or sweatpants, and in t-shirts. We would get in a set grouping and begin to warm up, stretching, jogging in place, sprawls, push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, etc. We would do this for 20 to 30 minutes. We would then do a series of moves, depending on the day, most days we pushed fundamentals, once in a while we threw in a new move, and worked the move now and then threw out the rest of the season. Then at the end of practice, we would often do more cardio, never can get enough cardio. Nothing goes wrong with more cardio. Then we circle up as a team and talk for a few about practice, meet results, etc. Which practically round up our practice.

"The school has been rough, I spent a short amount of the year as a remote student and it was rough. So I have spent a good bit of time, after going back to school, recouping my grades. I am not planning on doing a spring sport as I plan on getting some extra money for college and wrestling in college. I want to go to college for a medical science degree. My choices are all over the place and I haven't been able to choose. So I chose to go to the college that would give me a roundabout choice and would allow me to get in a few years more of wrestling."

Hailey Wood, Mount View, senior

"My school year has gone really well. I am doing a lot better because of the new hybrid schedule. I do play a spring sport, I am a pole vaulter, 400-meter sprinter and a long jumper. I am beyond excited to be able to try and place in pole vault like I had my sophomore year at states. I am also very excited to be with my team and coach again on the track. There is nothing like being out in the open air with your teammates having fun.

"I think that the loss of this wrestling season is going to have a long-lasting effect on the seasons to come. I believe we are going to see a drop in numbers because the younger kids who may not be as dedicated to the program/sport might choose to do another winter sport that they happen to like more.

"The most difficult part of the season for me was the waiting, not knowing whether there was going to be a season or not. Another really hard and disheartening part was having to convey the message of the decision being pushed back to from my coach to my fellow wrestlers. The final decision kinda of broke us as well because we were really looking forward to having our last chance to be on the mat together. It was personally difficult for me because I was recovering from my fourth shoulder surgery and it was supposed to be my year to finally come back full strength and be able to do every meet and tournament with the team without worrying about the damage to my shoulder.

"Our team wasn’t able to practice because our school wouldn’t let us. But, at the beginning of COVID I hosted wrestling meet ups at a local park and we got together till the start of the next school year. We would just talk and work out and try to find some continuity in each other. We only stop this because not everyone was in the same cohort and we didn’t think it would be fair to those of us who did spring sports.

"A little about the team that I feel is vital to all of our responses. We are extremely close and feel as if we are family and we were all so very hurt that this happened. This season was supposed to be a huge season for all of us, Zachary Ward was projected to win states for the first time since he had done it since freshman year. Morgan Fonger was going to have a weight class to herself at girls state and have a shot at the first and possibly place at regionals. Emma Fonger was going to have another shot at first for her weight class at girls state and possibly place at regionals. I was projected since my surgery to place 1st or 2nd at girls state and have a true shot at regionals for the first time since I had broken my shoulder wrestling. Then we have Aedan who would have time to learn his body and strengthen himself to possibly go farther than he had last year, maybe win his first match. And Garrett would have a shot at advancing himself beyond the spot he was at last year. As of right now I know that Zachary and I plan on wrestling in college and as of my knowledge it’s in the books for the Fongers as well."

Emma Fonger, Mount View, senior

"At Mount View, I only go to school on Mondays and Tuesdays and without wrestling my whole sense of time is really off. If anything it just feels like time is passing more slowly. The school year, though it has been more stressful adjusting to different expectations and schedules, has also been more laid back than previous years. I have been able to spend more time outside and with my family.

"I spend a lot of time with my sister, too, especially since we have the same schedule at school. Teachers have been very understanding as they themselves aren’t sure what works and what doesn’t. For some of them, they have had to drastically change how they conduct and teach their classes, but they also know that it is different for us too. I also have a lot of the same teachers as last year so it helps that they already know me as a student. I plan to attend college and the way my schedule is has allotted me more time to work through that process, so that has been nice. I play softball in the spring and, especially after the loss of last year and the wrestling season, I can’t wait to be a part of something again as I didn’t play a fall sport.

"As for the cancellation of the season I think it was unnecessary to completely rule it out. A lot of people, including myself and my family, don’t understand why it was deemed too risky when nearby states like New Hampshire resumed with a regular high school wrestling season this year. I understand that contact is part of the sport, but if it was deemed safe in other states then why did Maine have to be the exception.

"At Mount View the cancellation of the season is a hard hit to the program. We haven’t graduated many seniors since I have been in high school and this year would have been the final season for over half our team. It would also have been the last year for two families who have had multiple wrestlers on the team throughout the years. I know that if there had been a season it wouldn’t have been the same, but I just wish that last year I could have known it was going to be my last.

"The delay of the decision to cancel the season, I think just made the final decision more difficult. I was less optimistic about it in November, but when the decision was delayed until February I had hope that it would still occur. In February, when the decision was only put off again and again I didn’t really know what to think. Our team still hadn’t had the opportunity to practice together and, even though I had my sister at home to practice with, it was becoming more difficult to effectively prepare for something that we weren’t sure was going to happen or not. I understand that having a wrestling season would not have been easy, but that doesn’t really make dealing with it any easier. At least if the season had been cancelled earlier I either could have looked for other opportunities or I could have just focused on the upcoming softball season instead.

"As for wrestling practices this year, I think our program was waiting to hear whether there would be a season or not. We never had a chance to meet as a team, but I tried to stay in touch with the other wrestlers I saw at school. My sister and I tried to do what we could at home, but it can be difficult to have the right space for wrestling. Being sisters, though, none of the restrictions applied to our preparation."

Morgan Fonger, Mount View, senior

"I was very disappointed to finally hear the decision to cancel the wrestling season. Although I didn't like the decision, I wish it could have been made sooner instead of constantly pushing back when it would be made. I don't like the decision and wish that more could have been done to give us some sort of wrestling season like high school basketball, but I also understand that it was a difficult decision to make. Most of all I am disappointed that last year I had no idea it would be my last high school wrestling season. I could go on and on about the way I wish things had gone, but as with many things this year it just didn't happen the way I had imagined.

"At Mount View we didn't have the opportunity to have any kind of practices while we waited to hear the decision. It was difficult trying to work out at home with limited space and no equipment in preparation for the wrestling season that I hoped would happen. For months prior to the decision my twin sister, who also wrestles, and I tried to find ways to prepare, but it was hard to keep changing things up. As we got further into February and finally heard the decision it was frustrating. I could have spent more of my time in February preparing for the upcoming softball season, instead of holding out hope and preparing for the wrestling season that was canceled.

"As I said before, throughout the winter we were not able to have practices of any kind at school. This year the winter months were very different for many reasons. Part of this was the absence of a wrestling season. There is a lot more that goes into wrestling than just the practices. This winter without the season for example, it was very strange to not have to cut weight at any point. I missed a lot without the wrestling season; the feeling of accomplishment after a practice or making weight, the time spent with my family, teammates, and coaches in gyms every Saturday. Again, I could go on and on about the things that I missed.

"Even though I have been disappointed without having a wrestling season, I have been able to spend much more time with my family. We used to have wrestling meets or tournaments every Saturday, but this year we have been able to try new things and get outside more. I am excited to have the opportunity to play softball this year after losing the season last year. After graduation I plan to attend college to pursue a biology degree, but right now I am still waiting to hear back from some colleges in order to make my final decision."

Gavin Readiner, Medomak Valley, senior

"I'm very disappointed that some way to make it happen couldn't be figured out. The teammates I have spoken to are also very disappointed. As seniors, for most of us it was going to be our last wrestling season.

"There was talk of having practices or weight lifting, but neither ever happened. I feel there was little to no effort into trying to give us some sort of a season.

"I do track and am looking forward to that. I am attending Washington County Community College to obtain my conservation law degree in hopes of becoming a game warden."

Alexia Hopkins, Belfast, junior

"I think that it was very disappointing for everyone, parents, coaches and students after working hard before the start of wrestling. I follow a lot of wrestling and have friends out of state who were allowed to have a somewhat normal season. After considering this and other rules, I think they could have let go on some things and allowed us to have some sort of season. I think that this was not only disappointing to seniors, but was also unfair. Although it was hard to accept that there would be no season, I am very thankful for the people in the wrestling community who didn’t give up in order to attempt at giving us a season.

"Definitely hands down the waiting and waiting for answers about whether or not we would have a season. Many athletes, including myself, put in a lot of work, our seniors and even underclassmen had loads of potential this year. I think that the unknown and our season dangling in our face was an even bigger disappointment, especially when they decided to cancel the season entirely. The day I heard that they had officially canceled the season it didn't even seem like it was real, just because I think a lot of us thought that there was still hope for us. But I think that finally hearing that there would be nothing, hit us all like a freight train for sure. I also placed fourth at the girls state meet last season and I was ready to do that again, so hearing that I wouldn’t be able to do that was a huge letdown. I think other wrestlers are also in the same boat with not being able to achieve their goals for this season as well.

"All of the drills were designed to work on the wrestler as an individual, due to the fact that we had to stay distanced and couldn’t touch one another. First we started off normal with basic agilities, which included some cardio, tumbling and stretching to warm our bodies up. Then we would move right into drilling moves on our own and practicing the motion. I think the biggest tool was something we did referred to as 'shadow wrestling,' which is when you pretend you have an opponent facing you and that you are in a match. This gives wrestlers the opportunity to practice and drill moves at match like speed, but also allows them to see what it would look like in a match. We also used a lot of med balls, weights, bands and other exercise equipment to help us this year. Even though we couldn’t touch each other at all, I think that our coaches made this just as fun and was better for beginners because they were able to focus on their technique and get a better understanding of the sport.

"I’ve played softball for six years now and I will be playing again this year. I am so happy and relieved to hear that we are a go for having a season. Last year was really hard to lose a whole season and threw a lot of things off. But I’m glad that we have seemed to get that behind us and they have figured out a way to keep us safe, but on the field at the same time. After high school I plan on attending college and to study there for at least four years."

Courier Publications' sports staff can be reached by email at sports@villagesoup.com or by phone at 594-4401.

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