Prep Wrestling

Wrestling with COVID-19: Coaches focused on keeping wrestlers safe during pandemic

Programs deal with various effects from coronavirus

Western Dubuque head coach Paul Cleary (right) points at Carter Kluesner as he walks back to the bench after pinning Iow
Western Dubuque head coach Paul Cleary (right) points at Carter Kluesner as he walks back to the bench after pinning Iowa City High’s Joe Ring during the 182-pound bout of the high school wrestling 3A Dual Team Regional at Western Dubuque High School in Epworth on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. Kluesner won with a fall in 0:45. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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Monday was supposed to be the first date for competition for high school wrestling programs across Iowa.

For some teams, it will still mark the start that will be far from normal. For others, it will remain another idle in a year where no opportunity will be taken for granted.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact all walks of life, wrestling programs face a season filled with new procedures, fluctuating schedules and safety concerns on a daily basis. Most coaches have altered their regular routines and habits in an attempt to juggle the seriousness of the disease and limit risk to athletes.

“People say it’s going to be different,” West Delaware Coach Jeff Voss said. “Wrestling is a sport where you have to adjust and adapt all the time. From that standpoint, it’s not different. We’re just responding to different events than in the past.”

The coronavirus canceled spring sports in Iowa and delayed the start of baseball and softball as Iowa eventually became the first state to return to high school athletics competition. Play continued into the fall with volleyball being the first indoor sport.

The Iowa High School Athletic Association has made recommendations for programs without mandates. The responsibility falls on school districts to determine their own protocols and approach. Voss noted that not all programs have the facilities and resources to deal with the situation the same way.

“Every school’s situation is different,” Voss said. “I have two rooms and some don’t. They allow flexibility based on circumstances. Recommendations can be used by everyone.”

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The plan is to have an uninterrupted wrestling season, but there are factors that have to be addressed due to confined spaces and close physical contact between wrestlers. The sport has handled issues with communicable disease in the past, but this is a greater level.

“The biggest thing is the social and emotional health for everyone and to balance the terrible disease that Covid is,” Western Dubuque Coach Paul Cleary said. “If we can get the kids some type of (safe) season I think it’s worth it. I will do whatever it takes. Most coaches are in the same boat.”

The efforts have forced foes on the mat to become allies off it. Wamac Conference coaches have collaborated to develop safe procedures. They held a recent Zoom meeting to share each program’s plan and agreed to communicate successful and ineffective measures.

“We all want kids to compete (safely),” Williamsburg Coach Grant Eckenrod said. “I thought it was pretty cool, that even though we battle against each other, we wanted to help each other out so our kids had a chance.”

Cleary has changed the way his team has practiced. The team has been split into two groups with some practicing in the morning before school and the other half in the afternoon. He plans to do the same Monday before opening the season with Tuesday’s dual at Marion. Cleary will use a second facility the last half of the week, conducting two afternoon practices with half at the high school in Epworth and half at a junior high in Farley.

The Bobcats also demand wrestlers to wear masks for warmups, stretching and conditioning. They have four to five gallons of sanitizer to be used every 13 minutes and have assigned permanent drilling partners forced to stay in their respective circles on the mat. For the live portion, wrestlers stay in a pod of four the entire season.

“It’s a system,” Cleary said. “It’s working, so far, I guess.

“To be honest with you, my practices have been better than they’ve ever been, because everything is so structured. We have fewer kids in the room. The kids get more attention from the coaches.”

Williamsburg has also restricted wrestlers to one partner, separating individuals every 15 minutes. The Raiders wear masks for most of their practice. They haven’t experienced any problems, yet.

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“We have gone our two full weeks now,” Eckenrod said. “We wear full masks except when live wrestling. We condition and drill with them on and have been fine.

“We are going to play the game and do whatever we can to keep this thing going.”

Some programs have yet to step inside a practice room. Nick LeClere was named Cedar Rapids Kennedy’s head coach in June. A pandemic is not an ideal way to begin a tenure.

“I’m in the same experience level as (Linn-Mar Coach) Doug Streicher and (Cedar Rapids Prairie Coach) Kane Thompson, dealing with COVID-19,” said LeClere, who spent seven seasons as a Cougars assistant. “None of us have had to deal with this.”

Additionally, Cedar Rapids Community School District is among a group of school districts that have been granted 100 percent virtual learning waivers through Dec. 11. Schools are not allowed to have in-person activities during that period.

College Community and Iowa City Community school districts are among the programs that have yet to even practice.

“We know the guys we got and the talent,” LeClere said. “We haven’t been able to meet the new guys coming in. I only know them as names on a roster. They have popped up on virtual meetings.

“We’re waiting for Day 1, right now. We’re still waiting to get our hands on these guys.”

LeClere consulted assistant Craig Mallicoat and devised a plan to start with three practices of 15 wrestlers apiece in the afternoon, allowing for wrestlers to shower, leave and arrive without running into others from another session. The groups were divided into weight classes, determining one drill partner and pods of five to six for live wrestling.

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The Cougars wrestling room has a movable wall, allowing it to become two separate groups. Instead, wrestlers have had to settle for working out on their own and coming together for workouts over Zoom meetings.

Virtual learning could push back the first day of practice to as late as Dec. 14, if schools resume to 50 percent of core classes in person. It could mean some teams have to wait until January to compete, which trims the season to just six to eight weeks.

LeClere said he’d love to have at least one competition before the holiday break but has to factor all variables. He is concerned with body-fat composition testing as well. They have to find the appropriate time to take the measurements and determine what weight each can certify with a reasonable descent plan in a shortened season.

“I have to consider that and make sure I do it right,” LeClere said. “Giving them time to manage body-fat testing is a concern.”

The IHSAA hasn’t prohibited any type of competition, leaving that decision to schools to decide what they want to host or attend. Tournament organizers have already decided to cancel their tournaments.

Independence’s Cliff Keen Mustang Invitational the first weekend is canceled. The inaugural Donnybrook tournament to be held in Coralville the same weekend was wiped out. Mount Vernon eliminated its annual tournament, while the Battle of Waterloo dual-team event was scrapped.

West Delaware has not found a replacement for the Battle of Waterloo on its slate. The Hawks home tournament Saturday is on and Voss said he has received calls from teams looking for a replacement date. He said they won’t add another team, keeping it at nine. They plan to wrestle nine weights to completion in the larger gym and five in an older gym to control exposure between attendees.

Voss said the wrestlers have responded well. The focus is on each day. No one can afford to look ahead.

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“From the first day of practice, I said enjoy today,” Voss said. “Make today count. There are no guarantees in life.”

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

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