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Wrestling vs COVID

Wrestling vs. COVID – How a lacrosse team photo became unofficial wrestling team shot

It’s a warm sunny evening in May, and laughter can be heard throughout the stadium as the varsity lacrosse teams gathers for a team photo with their coach and rejoice over a 15-1 victory. Parents meet in the center to greet one another and jokingly decide which one of them are going to snap the next picture of the of the happy victors. All of this would be completely normal if it took place during any year except for 2020 or 2021. Immediately after seeing this picture I realized that this post-game lacrosse photo would now become the unofficial 2020-2021 wrestling team photo. This photo was taken after a lacrosse game, in which half of my varsity line up at Elkton High School in Elkton, Maryland managed to stay together and still compete as a team. This is the only group photo we have as a wrestling team for the 2020-2021 season, which was canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions in our state. Yes, you read that correctly.

My name is Mike Wright and I am not their lacrosse coach. I have been coaching high school wrestling for the last 10 years now. I started coaching wrestling as a volunteer coach in 2010 and was technically brought on to the team to become a practice partner for one of the seniors. The team at that time only had 4 wrestlers and no one to help that senior practice. I stayed on with the team as a volunteer coach for the next seven years receiving no pay, just the satisfaction of seeing young men and woman set and achieve goals. In 2017 as the second head coach had stepped away from the program I was grandfathered in and given the position of head coach.

During the years of 2010-2019 the team had seen extreme highs and lows in regards to the numbers of participation. For three of those years we had almost a full varsity line up (14 weight classes), but for the most part filling up a team has been the ongoing struggle. In 2018 we started to see a few more kids join, but managed to be unable to fill more than half the varsity weight classes. In 2019 we had gathered more kids then we had in about three years and only forfeited three weight classes. An amazing turn around for our team, as coaches from around the conference would tell the coaching staff and myself how great it was to see our numbers increase. More importantly during the 2018-2019 season our team won three dual meets. That was the life we needed, we hadn’t won a single dual meet since 2015 and it was a testament to our hard work and resilience. For the first time in a long time we had something that we had been chasing for years, hope. We had a group of dedicated and hungry young sophomores that made up 80% of our team. All of them were green with zero wrestling experience but they were eager and excited to learn. We all knew that if we continued to progress and stick together for the next upcoming season that we may have something to work with. Our team for the 2019-2020 season would consist of 80% juniors with one lone senior and we would be competitive and maybe even a contender in our conference.

During March of 2019 COVID out breaks had struck hard and spread even faster. The outbreak happened so fast that our winter sports ceremony was canceled and the season had only ended a few weeks prior. Little did we know that things would remain shut down for a very long time. As a team we did the best we could to stay together, often using Instagram to share workout videos and tips for the athletes to stay in shape during quarantine. Coaches kept an open door policy for students and parents with questions or concerns. Morale remained positive but most, if not all conversations included the question “any word on if we’ll have a wrestling season this year”? The answer was always the same, because as a coach we never knew what was going to happen. It was a months of waiting until in November the Governor announced that wrestling along with other winter sports that involve contact, would be canceled.

Naturally the team was let down, but before I told the team as a group I made it my job to let our senior know first. We had only one senior coming into the 2020-2021 season. It just so happened to be that he was the one wrestler who had been with the team the longest out of our current athletes. He was a hard working kid as well as a dedicated one. He came to us in 2018 as a sophomore with zero experience in wrestling. He was what we call a “soccer kid”, naturally thin with great conditioning but he clearly lacked the aggression, confidence, and thirst for contact that draws most teenagers to a wrestling team. Like most first year wrestlers he was the nail more often than the hammer and might have finished his season with three wins at most. His second year (2019-2020) he became more serious about the sport and worked out a bit in the off season to prepare for his junior year. His preparation had paid off that year as he tied for the most wins on our team, led the team in pinfall victories, and took third place at the conference tournament in his weight class. After his junior year he wrestled twice a week at a wrestling club during the offseason in preparation for his upcoming senior year, this was going to be his best year to date.

Things were going great, and again the first word that comes to mind when I think of the 2019-2020 season is “hope”. For the first time in a long time we had it. We preached it to our team of athletes. We had a handful of kids who really enjoyed the sport that were coming back to us and our only junior on the team would be with us one last year to lead his teammates to the proper ending to his tenure. The rest we know is history. I wish I could sit here and write about how that would be senior got to finish his time with us and went on to win a state championship. I wish I could sit here and write about how he had multiple college offers and would be graduating high school this year to pursue his wrestling efforts in college. Not all endings are story book endings, and that would be senior was denied his final chance at seeing his hard work payoff. He will be attending a great University next year as a testament to his hard work, but he will not be wrestling. Sports are funny like that. Your senior year becomes your “show case season”, it becomes your time to shine. Even if you don’t become a state champion, you have the entire season to catch the eye of potential colleges in hopes of a scholarship or an invite.

COVID hurt our team in more ways than one, and in more ways than most. We were on the cusp of a huge building year that saw more wrestlers than we had in the past. We had a returning conference medalist who had been working hard in the offseason. We had won more dual meets as a team in one season than we had won in the last three years combined! Being one of the only schools in the state that does not have a junior league program, leads us to start from scratch every single year. Our next season we will have to start over but not because we have a whole new team. It’ll be because most of these kids haven’t touched their shoes in almost two years. Everyone will be learning all over again.

Does this kill our momentum?

Only time will tell. Like most dedicated coaches I welcome the challenges that our next season will bring. 2020 will be one for the books and who knows, maybe this year off from wrestling will even the playing field for our team. I can say it has affected us all in various ways but as a coach I’m glad to see this team stick through COVID and find a way to compete as a team. Looking back at this photo, and I’m just as proud of it as I would be if it were a team photo. As far as I’m concerned this is our team photo.

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