Bucksport’s Rustin Maguire receives instructions from head coach Dave Gross during high school wrestling practice Nov. 29 at Bucksport High School. After missing out on wrestling last year following the cancellation of the season, local wrestlers and coaches are full of anticipation ahead of the first preseason meets this weekend. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY MIKE MANDELL

High school wrestlers return to mats after 22 months

ELLSWORTH — There’s a lot more energy in high school cafeterias during after-school hours these days.

It’s been close to two years now since February 2020, the last time high school wrestling meets were held in the state of Maine. Deemed a “high-risk” activity under the state’s community sports guidelines, wrestling was ultimately unable to go forward a year ago after countless delays to a potential season.

“These kids were pretty heartbroken last year when they couldn’t wrestle,” said Bucksport head coach Dave Gross. “We were allowed to do lifting and conditioning, but it’s just not the same when you can’t be on the mats.”

There are a few challenging limitations in place as Hancock County’s high school wrestlers get set for the first competitions in more than 650 days. Yet the prevailing feeling among coaches and athletes is one of anticipation ahead of the first preseason contests this weekend.

Bucksport assistant coach Shawn Costigan gives instructions to Andrew Braley during high school wrestling practice Nov. 29 at Bucksport High School. The 2021-22 season will be held with a normal schedule and time table, though masks and some fan restrictions will still be in place. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY MIKE MANDELL

Like every winter sport, the start of the wrestling season was delayed last year as state agencies and the Maine Principals’ Association developed a plan to offer activities under the aforementioned guidelines. While basketball, indoor track, swimming and cheer were ultimately able to go forward, wrestling was limited to non-contact skills and conditioning exercises.

After delay upon delay, the MPA ultimately elected in late February to cancel the 2021-22 high school wrestling season. That marked a bitter end after months of hope for local wrestlers, who have found relief in the return to a normal schedule and routine this year.

“I think the hardest part of last year was being led on,” said Bucksport senior Paige Anderson, who was cutting weight and adjusting her diet with the hope that a season would ultimately materialize. “That was very frustrating. … It’s been nice to not have to keep waiting around for updates this year.”

Wrestling-designated areas in cafeterias and gym corners at the moment look largely similar to the way they did the last time during the pre-COVID era. After a year’s absence, the hands-on competition and sounds of bodies thudding against the mats have returned to afternoon and evening practices.

There is, though, one supposed COVID-19 mitigation effort from a year ago that will still be in place this season: masking. The mask mandate for the sport includes those actively wrestling, and between breathing troubles, performance concerns and masks regularly falling off faces as wrestlers contort their bodies, coaches and athletes are understandably frustrated.

“It’s awful,” Gross put it bluntly. “They can’t breathe, and really it’s not safe. The MPA released a statement two weeks before the season started about how it’s not safe to wear masks and wrestle, and now here we are wearing masks while we’re wrestling. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Any wrestling, of course, is still better than the frustration and darkness that permeated practice areas at this time 11 months ago. Being deprived of an outlet to unleash energy and angst added even more anxiety to a painful winter a year ago, and wrestlers have already noticed marked improvements to their mental and physical health.

Ellsworth’s Gianna Anderson takes hold of a teammate during high school wrestling practice Nov. 30 at Ellsworth High School. The first preseason meets and tournaments are set for this weekend with the regular season set to begin next Saturday, Dec. 11. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY MIKE MANDELL

“I felt a lot of pent-up frustration building up last year when we couldn’t wrestle,” said Ellsworth’s Gianna Anderson. “Wrestling is an aggressive outlet, and without it, I didn’t really have a way to [channel] that aggression. It’s been much better now that we’ve gotten this season going.”

As was the case with football players in the fall, many wrestlers have found it challenging to get back into tournament shape after two years without any formal competitions. Yet with athletes more motivated to wrestle than ever after a lost year, some teams have been able to make up for lost time.

“Back in my day, people came in as freshmen and sophomores with really no experience at all,” said new Ellsworth head coach Dakota Jewett. “Most of these kids now wrestled in middle school and have all kinds of experience, so everyone came in ready to work. Even though we’re only in Week 2, I feel like everyone’s hitting their stride.”

Although regular season meets and tournaments can’t be held until next week, the first real competition in nearly 22 months will take place in a matter of days. Bucksport is scheduled to host Ellsworth, Mount Desert Island, Washington Academy, Caribou, Dexter, Foxcroft, Mattanawcook Academy and Piscataquis in a preseason meet at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 4.

After more than a year of waiting, the upcoming preseason and regular season meets will be opportunities for local wrestlers to push toward meeting their season-end goals. For Paige Anderson, that means winning a girls’ state championship in late February; for Gianna Anderson, it means breaking through against the boys.

“I’m a lot more confident against females than I am against males, and I want to build up the confidence no matter the gender,” Ellsworth’s Anderson said. “Now that we have a season again, I want to beat them and get a lot more wins this year.”

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell is the sports editor at The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. He began working for The American in August 2016. You can reach him via email at [email protected]

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