CORONAVIRUS

'It was gut-wrenching': The scene in Cedar Rapids as D-III Wrestling Championships were canceled

NCAA canceled all winter and spring championships due to COVID-19 pandemic

A championship bout at the 2016 NCAA Division III Wrestling Championship Finals at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rap
A championship bout at the 2016 NCAA Division III Wrestling Championship Finals at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Coe Coach John Oostendorp was mat side on the U.S. Cellular Center floor that was already set up and prepared for the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships.

He had just attended the annual coaches meeting to address procedures and policies like every year. Oostendorp was watching wrestlers warm up when he noticed others begin to stir before the announcement that echoed throughout the arena and throughout college athletics.

Due to safety concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA canceled its winter and spring championships Thursday afternoon. The decision brought a premature end to the season and of some careers.

“I think everybody is really hurting, right now,” Oostendorp said. “First and foremost are the athletes, parents, coaches and fans. It’s just a difficult situation.”

Wartburg Coach Eric Keller had returned to his hotel from the coaches meeting. He received the NCAA statement in a text from a team trainer. At first, he wasn’t sure if it included the D-III tournament that was less than 18 hours from starting. He realized all divisions were impacted and he was forced to confirm the news to the competitors.

“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to do,” Keller said. “To find out last minute, it’s so heartbreaking. The timing is so hard. They feel like the rug kind of got pulled from underneath their feet last second.”

Wartburg second-seeded 174-pounder Kyle Briggs didn’t think it was a threat as things first unfolded at break-neck speed Wednesday. As the situation unfolded, it seemed more of a possibility and then became inevitable.

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“I was kind of hoping for the best,” said Briggs, a former Cedar Rapids Jefferson prep. “Once they actually announced it, it hit pretty hard. It was really hard to process.”

Tournament Director Dick Simmons was in the arena as the cancellation news was delivered. He witnessed the immediate impact it had on the athletes working out one last time.

“When we made the announcement in the arena, student-athletes dropped to their knees and were crying,” Simmons said. “Coaches and people I’ve known and worked with for 15 years ... the emotions of it will be something I’ll never forget. It was gut-wrenching. You just feel for the kids.”

Briggs, a returning All-American, was with managers and coaches when he learned he wouldn’t be competing in his hometown. He had been ranked as high as No. 1 nationally at 184 this season and was a contender for a national title.

“It’s tough because this was one of my best opportunities to really show how well I can do,” Briggs said. “I feel for some of my teammates.

“For some, this is it. They’ve already wrestled their last match. That’s extremely sad. Fortunately, I have the chance to wrestle again next year, barring anything crazy like this happening.”

Coe senior Taylor Mehmen was seeded second at 197, coming off a regional title. He placed fifth last year and had wins previously over Loras’ top-seeded Guy Patron Jr. Mehmen, a former Cedar Rapids Prairie wrestler, didn’t get his last shot.

“You hurt for everybody, but you hurt for the seniors the most,” Oostendorp said. “It’s their last chance. The toughest thing is you earn the opportunity but not get the chance to fulfill it, especially being so close.

“There’s really no protocol for something like this.”

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Keller said he struggled with telling his wrestlers, knowing the physical and emotional demands of a wrestling lifestyle and they won’t be able to complete their journey. He tried to emphasize the positive.

“In 20 years of coaching, you never think you’ll have to tell guys we’re not having a national tournament,” Keller said. “It’s such a unique situation.

“There were two messages. First, it’s really hard to not get the opportunity to prove yourself this weekend because wrestling in the national championships is special and one of the most exciting things in this sport. I also said it doesn’t take away from the amazing season that they had and what they proved all year long, winning National Duals and what some guys accomplished individually”

Local organizers didn’t have much input. They had the event ready to run on schedule and waited to hear its fate.

“We had the athletes here, but we’re an NCAA Championship event so we follow the lead and do what the NCAA says,” Simmons said. “I know it wasn’t an easy decision.”

Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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