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Wrestling: Coaches bracing for oddest high school season yet

Many expect ‘ugly’ wrestling at start Jan. 18

DENVER, CO – Lyons High School’s Christian Keller wrestles Dove Creek High School’s Jayden Sanders during a 2A 132-pound match during the first day of the CHSAA State Wrestling Championships on Thursday at the Pepsi Center in Denver. (Photo by Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer)
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All the norms of a high school wrestling season — the grappling, the headlocks, one athlete throwing another down on a mat before trying to hold them there — are expected to return this month despite the country’s larger-scale spar with the coronavirus pandemic.

But while wrestling’s fundamental properties look to be preserved starting this month, details surrounding the sport are sure to deliver more than enough odd.

At Mead High School, longtime coach Ty Tatham is planning for a season unlike any he’s witnessed. Challenges revolve around adapting from a season that usually begins in November and goes through the holiday break before ending in February, which is now squeezed into a span of seven or eight weeks.

Wrestlers had expected to start their season Jan. 4 when CHSAA’s initial calendar was released in August. Then it was pushed back to Feb. 1 last month. Then a week ago, variances were secured from state officials to push that start date up to Jan. 18, where it currently, and tentatively, stands.

“One of the things I’m doing right now is reaching out to some of the (fall) coaches in our building that have already gone through this and just ‘what are some things you ran into,’” Tatham said. “They were all outside sports, so it’s a little different. But at least it might shed some light for me on things I need to think about.”

Like getting his wrestlers in shape on the fly.

Tatham said he saw how minor injuries popped up with the short preparation period given for football, which had around two weeks of practice before the first week of games. Wrestlers, meanwhile, will have just a week of practice before matches can begin Jan. 25.

“I think with the amount of time kids have had off, and that’s not to say that all kids are sitting and playing video games, but obviously kids aren’t as active as they normally are,” Tatham said. “So, I think it’s going to be about getting their bodies ready to perform in a short amount of time and being smart as a coach in dealing with that. We don’t need to win in the first couple of weeks, we need to be ready in the end.”

Longmont coach Matt Engelking echoed the sentiment, saying with his young team there will probably be some “ugly wrestling” early on.

“The technique is not going to be there yet, we’re going to be out of (wrestling) shape,” he acknowledged.

On the flip side, with so many wrestlers also playing football in the fall, the break could be good.

Normally, football would overlap the start of wrestling and athletes participating in both would have little to no rest in between. But in the present, area football teams participating in Season A finished in November and now have around a two-month break before wrestling.

“I definitely have some kids that needed the time to rest and do some different training to get their bodies in the position to wrestle,” Tatham said. “That’ll be a positive.”

As a reference point for winter sports, football along with softball, cross country, boys golf and tennis each finished their condensed fall seasons under strict social distancing guidelines — but there were setbacks.

Football, for one, had a number of games canceled across the state due to COVID-19 exposure.

For wresting, CHSAA has yet to release a layout of safety guidelines but should soon.

It is expected that programs will have to adapt to wearing masks around the mat. Also likely are team bus and locker room restrictions as well as limited wrestlers allowed at one venue.

“I might even split practice,” Engelking said. “(My staff and I) are going to talk about splitting our kids in half, so in case we get a COVID issue, it doesn’t wipe out our whole team.”

The sport’s state tournament, which had been held for years in front of supremely large crowds at the Pepsi Center, now called Ball Arena, will probably look different, too.

“But as much as we talk about training and the competitive side of things, I just want to be with my guys and get them through this thing,” Tatham said. “And let them know that you know what, just because you don’t have the year you were thinking about on the wrestling mat it’s all going to be OK. We’re going to move on and be better because of it.”