AUGUSTA — As the 2021 winter sports season nears completion, athletes in one sport have been denied a chance to compete before they could even begin.
The Maine Principals’ Association announced Friday the cancellation of the 2021 competitive wrestling season. The announcement came after the MPA Wrestling Committee met Friday morning to determine the status of the sport, which has been limited to non-contact drills and skills development this winter.
Meets and tournaments have been off the table this winter as a result of wrestling’s “high-risk” status under the state’s community sports guidelines. State agencies would have to remove that status for the sport to begin competitive play, and with teams required to conclude winter sports by March 12, administrators felt that the barriers to a competitive season were too great to overcome.
“To date, there has been no change in the community sports guidelines, and we have no indication that they will in the near future,” MPA Assistant Executive Director Mike Bisson said in a statement. “We have waited as long as possible to allow for some type of season, and a final decision needed to be made.”
In November, the MPA pushed a potential start date for the first wrestling meets from December to Feb. 22. Doing so provided buffer time for potential alterations to the state’s community sports guidelines, which listed wrestling as a Level 2 activity (skill-building and conditioning drills and team-based practices only).
There was briefly a glimmer of hope for the sport after the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) removed risk tiers from its ever-evolving list of recommendations on the return of high school athletics Feb. 2. Yet despite that significant development, the community sports guidelines did not change.
In early February, after no changes were made to the community sports guidelines, the MPA announced a final decision on the season would be made at a meeting to be held Monday. After that meeting was pushed back to Friday, those who were still holding out hope knew the writing was on the wall.
“When they didn’t meet Monday, I knew that was it,” said Bucksport head coach Dave Gross. “We were trying to stay optimistic, but we were already down to two weeks or so left, and it was at the point where it wasn’t going to happen.”
Maine joins Connecticut, Hawaii, Nevada and Vermont as one of five states to have canceled competitive wrestling in 2020-21. The sport’s status varies elsewhere in the country with states offering the activity as usual (Missouri, Ohio, Virginia), delaying the season until the spring or summer (Illinois, New Mexico) and even planning outdoor competitions later this year (Massachusetts, California).
Although no Maine high school sport has gone unaffected during the novel coronavirus pandemic, wrestling is one of just two that have not been held competitively during the current academic year. Plans to play contact football, which was not held in the fall, in the late spring or early summer were scrapped in late January.
The loss of a wrestling season means many seniors who had been looking to reach career milestones this year will be unable to do so. Those affected include Ellsworth seniors Noah Hughes and Matt Reid, both of whom were on track to notch their 100th career wins in 2020-21.
“It’s a little hard to swallow that I won’t ever get my name up on that 100-win banner,” said Hughes, who also lost a tackle football season in the fall. “That was a big goal for me, and I know Matt was really, really looking forward to that as well. He would have gotten his, for sure.”
Communication has been a chief complaint among wrestlers and coaches throughout the winter. Key dates have gone by without clarification as to the sport’s status, and coaches, Gross said, have gotten little feedback on how wrestling differs from sports that have been held competitively this winter.
“I think we could have done it just as safely as basketball,” Gross said. “For wrestling, it’s just one kid on one kid; basketball is 10 kids playing at the same time, and when you look at the photos from [the games this winter], you have kids all on top of each other and making contact. … It’s just frustrating.”
Gross informed Bucksport wrestlers of the season’s cancellation Friday morning, just hours before the MPA made its official announcement. Although the news was far from surprising, it was still a difficult conversation for athletes that have seen their classmates in other sports engage in contact drills and competitive matches.
“We’ll walk through the gym to go to the weight room, and we’ll see other sports all there getting ready to play,” said Bucksport’s Paige Anderson. “It’s just been really hard, and our coaches have been the only one who have told us what’s happening.”
Gross said Bucksport plans to continue with non-contact skills and development exercises through March 12. Even with no matches or meets on the horizon, being able to meet and train as a team, he said, has been a productive endeavor over the past two months.
Although Ellsworth had yet to practice this winter at the time the cancellation was announced, the Eagles did begin some conditioning practices Wednesday. In addition to those practices, Ellsworth wrestlers are also hosting a pet food drive along with the football team from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. this Saturday, March 6, at Ellsworth High School.
“We still want to get together as a team to try and do things,” Hughes said. “Right now, that means turning out to help the community even if we can’t compete.”