MERIDEN — Wrestlers won’t be peeking at their smart phones for updates Thursday morning when the CIAC Board of Control meets to decide the fate of the high school winter sports season.
They already know theirs.
Even if the Board of Control decides to move forward with the winter season, the Connecticut Department of Public Health reiterated earlier this week that wrestling should not be part of it, and the CIAC is almost certain to abide by that advice.
The DPH recommendation, first made in November, is based on the sport-by-sport risk levels mapped out by the National Federation of State High School Associations. Wrestling, along with competitive dance and competitive cheerleading, is one of the winter sports deemed high risk for the spread of COVID-19.
That leaves wrestling in the same boat as tackle football, which was cancelled in Connecticut last fall, also on the advice of the state health department.
And therein might lie wrestling’s salvation for 2021. The CIAC has set up an “alternative” season, mid-February through mid-April, for football and any other sport that does not complete 40 percent of its regular season.
Wrestling coaches are hoping their sport can slot into that time frame.
In the meantime, they’ll look to keep their wrestlers going with the small cohort training that has been allowed since youth, high school and recreational sports were put on hold by Gov. Ned Lamont and the CIAC in November.
“I need to connect with these kids,” said Platt coach Bryan McCarty. “This has been a challenge for everyone and for these kids to go without a sport, without even directions, it’s real heartbreaking. I’d like the opportunity to start working with the kids.”
The practices, McCarty added, would serve a purpose beyond wrestling.
“This has been very difficult for the kids to wrap their heads around,” he said. “A lot of these kids have been quarantined several times and they’re fighting. They’re fighting to stay in the game, to stay academically eligible.”
In Southington, coach Derek Dion started voluntary cohort training this week. Maloney coach Joe Winoski is planning to start his next week.
In one respect, cohort training works perfectly for wrestling. Even in normal times, wrestling practices are subdivided by weight class.
The current state rule caps cohorts at four athletes. Groups must be spread out. Masks must be worn. Sessions are limited to roughly 45 minutes.
Athletes can condition and work on sport-specific skills. There can be no contact, however, and that’s where cohort training does not work for wrestling.
“I can show them moves to an extent, but if I don’t have someone to demonstrate on or to demonstrate on me, I can’t really show them anything but basic stances and moving around the mat and getting out from the bottom,” Winoski said. “It’s limited options to what we can show the kids for moves. If we have any incoming freshmen coming in, if they’ve never wrestled before, they’ll be completely lost when it comes to actually getting in competition.”
That said, area coaches will embrace cohort practices, whether an “alternative” season comes to pass or not.
“It’s an outlet for the kids,” Dion said. “Maybe they’re just getting in shape for a spring sport, maybe we have a season at some point or maybe it’s just something to keep their blood moving and gives them something to hope for. I want to give them something.”
Dion is on the CIAC Wrestling Committee. In the fall, the committee came up with detailed protocols for practice and competition in hopes of staging a season. The recommendations included cohort practices in groups of four.
The plan also called for dual-meets only. There would have been no tournaments and no multi-team events.
Mats would have been disinfected before every meet and after every match. Masks would have been worn by everybody in the gym execpt for the two wrestlers in action.
A few weeks later, though, in conjunction with the CIAC and Gov. Ned Lamont suspending youth, high school and recreational sports through January 19, the DPH first advised wrestling not to be held.
Connecticut is not alone in that regard. In New England, only New Hampshire is staging wrestling this winter, though it’s no more than 10 dual meets per team and nothing else.
Wrestling has been cancelled in Vermont. It’s been pushed to the spring in Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
New Jersey is also taking the spring route. New York is on indefinite hold just like Connecticut.
If Connecticut does wind up shifting wrestling to the “alternative” season along side football, it will likely require some athletes to make a choice. A fair number of football players also wrestle.
“Not as many as in years past, but we have a couple dual-sport kids,” McCarty said. “To make them choose is going to be difficult. If they choose football, I’ll back their decision. If they choose wrestling, I’ll support them there.
“However it rolls out, we’ll make it roll out for the benefit of the students.”