Matches have yet to be conducted, and only a handful of practices have taken place.
Even so, the 2021 high-school wrestling season is taking shape as one of the more unique and unusual seen at any time. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and a change in post-season format, the season will take its place in the sport’s history in Pennsylvania as one where “normal” events will be anything but.
Safety concerns arising from the pandemic are forcing a number of requirements on the participants and their venues.
Wrestlers will be required to wear masks during competition to cover their mouths and noses in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus. They will no longer shake hands prior to or after the match, another change to mitigate the spread.
To signal the winner, the referee will raise his own hand with the green wristband for the home wrestler, or the red wristband for the visitor.
“You’re not going to see (post-match) interactions like in past,” Upper Perkiomen head coach Steve Adam said.
Things unseen since wrestling became an interscholastic sport in the Keystone State will be on display … for the few fans who will be able to attend due to indoor capacity limits during the coronavirus pandemic. Others can watch on the various livestreaming services provided by the home schools.
At Upper Perkiomen, home matches will have two mats set up in the gym. A weight class will wrestle on one mat, then next match will be conducted on the other mat while the first one is being sanitized.
Mask acclimation has become a key phase of the practices leading up to the start of matches. Adam has been researching various styles of masks to find one that meets all necessary requirements.
“The whole mask acclimation, we want to find which style is more comfortable and will stay on,” he said. “Practice speed is different from competition speed.
“With a fairly tight ‘gator mask,’ you cut holes for the ears to stay in place. Holes cut in the right spot will keep the mask on the bridge of your nose.”
Mask acclimation during practice and competition is part of the regimen at both Owen J. Roberts and Methacton, too. Both have found the process gets easier the more it’s undertaken.
“We started with shorter than usual live wresting and sessions with plans to incrementally increase the times,” Mark Harner, taking over as the Warriors’ head coach this winter after 16 years in the same capacity at Norristown, explained. “We’ve also increased the number of rest and water breaks.”
“This was tough at first,” OJR mat boss Steve DeRafelo added, “but seems to get better every day as they get acclimated to the masks. It is not fun, but is a necessary evil at this point.”
The most recent pandemic shutdown came before many high school sports programs were able to get any practices under their belts. Upper Perkiomen, facing that circumstance, employed what Adam called the AMRAP (As Many Repetitions As Possible) workout worksheet, which intermixes various exercises with running.
At Owen J., DeRafelo and his staff gave their grapplers daily workouts and mindset training through Z Wrestling Mindset (wrestlingmindset.com), a program that works on developing a wrestler’s mental approach to the sport.
“We had weekly online meetings, just to stay in touch,” he added.
To allow for distancing in practice, Harner moved his Warriors out of the closer confines of their wrestling room.
“All preseason workouts were held outside on our soccer field,” he said. “Regular season workouts are taking place in our boys gym, which is larger than our wrestling room.”
As for utilizing its time during December’s shutdown …
“We held on-line meetings and sent out workout instructions for kids to perform on their own,” Harner said.
DeRafelo, in turn, instituted other adjustments to practice routines.
“We gave the kids assigned partners to make contact tracing easier,” he noted. “We need to be creative with the number of kids in our weight room. We need to do daily screenings of all of our kids before practice, which takes a little time.”
A COVID situation has extended Boyertown’s “down time” an extra week. Tony Haley was prepared to start practice with the Bears Monday, but the outbreak has them waiting until next Monday (Jan. 11) to start.
“I got the word Sunday night,” Haley said, noting the requirement is for a team to have 10 practices in before its first match. So mask acclimation is on hold until the team starts practicing.
“We have a plan on how we’ll attempt to try it,” he added. “One thing could be shorter type practices.”
At The Hill School, third-year head coach Dave Hoffman is dealing with a scenario considerably different from the area’s public schools.
“When Hill mapped out the school year,” he explained, “they made the decision to shut down in-person learning from November 20 to March 1. So there are currently no students on campus. However, winter varsity athletes will be allowed to return to campus for a training phase that begins on Jan. 15 and ends when students return in March.
“My guys are in the midst of completing a two-week quarantine period at home and will return to campus in 10 days to create a bubble … even our local day students will be required to stay on campus during this phase; they cannot go home and parents cannot visit. Because we are creating a bubble, we will be allowed to train (in groups of four) without masks.”
“Our kids have been training with their local clubs while they were home, and local wrestlers have been training with me. We have not been able to use out own wrestling room, as Hill’s campus has been shut down, so we have been running small group practices at a local student’s house that has wrestling mats in their barn.”
For his part, DeRafelo is happy to have the Owen J. Roberts matters in action, the pandemic-fueled rules and restrictions notwithstanding.
“I am grateful for any opportunity we get to compete in whatever format that may look like,” he said.
Other situations impacting conduct of the 2021 high-school wrestling season:
The PIAA Board of Directors on Dec. 9 approved recommendations from the organization’s wrestling steering committee for a revised postseason format as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The PIAA board also approved, with no objections, the format of the individual wrestling championships, which will feature an additional “super regional” round that narrows the PIAA championship field to eight wrestlers in both Class 3A and 2A.
Four wrestlers will qualify from each of the super regional tournaments. The eight-man tournaments will be wrestled at Giant Center in Hershey, and they will include consolation rounds in each weight class.
In Class 2A, sectional championships are proposed for Feb. 19, followed by districts (Feb. 20), regionals (Feb. 27) super regionals (March 6) and states (March 12). One Class 2A super regional will include the Northeast (Districts 2/11/12) and Southeast (Districts 1/12/3/11), with the other being the Northwest (Districts 9/10) and Southwest (Districts 5/6/7).
In Class 3A, sectional championships for Districts 1, 3 and 7 are ticketed for Feb. 20, while district tournaments are wrestled in other parts of the state on the same day. Regionals are scheduled for Feb. 27, followed by the super regional round (March 6) and the state tournament (March 13).
One Class 3A super regional will include the Northeast (Districts 2/11/12) and Southeast (District 1), while the other includes South Central (District 3), Southwest (District 7) and Northwest (Districts 4/9, 6, 8 and 10).
The PIAA team championships will now include only district champions for a total of 10 tournament entrants. The first two rounds in both Class 2A and 3A will be wrestled at local sites on Feb. 8 and Feb. 10. The Class 2A semifinals, finals and consolation finals will be wrestled at Hershey’s Giant Center on Friday, Feb. 12. The Class 3A semifinals, finals and consolations will take place on Saturday, Feb. 13.
The stated objective of the PIAA wrestling steering committee was to create a postseason format that complied with its own recommendations for safety. That includes completing tournaments in one day and allowing for appropriate cleaning procedures and warmup space with adequate social distancing.
That was the driving force behind limiting the individual championships to eight competitors, and the tournament will be broken into smaller sessions by weight classes to manage capacity and spacing. In both Class 2A and 3A, the first session will be for 106-138 pounds and the second will be 145-285 pounds.
“The committee didn’t want to limit participation, but was obviously aware of the occupancy limits that exist and our own recommendations,” PIAA chief operating officer Mark Byers told PennLive last week. “The committee was quick to recognize that an 8-wrestler format was in our best interest.”
Sectional and district championship formats are still subject to changes at the local level. Work to identify appropriate host sites for the four super regional championships also needs to be done.
Another difference in the 2021 season — one not related to the pandemic — is the reduction of weight classes from 14 to 13. That change was made in 2020 in an attempt to reduce the number of forfeits in dual matches.
The nine weight classes from 106 pounds to 160 will remain the same: 113, 120, 126, 132, 138, 145 and 152. The remainder of the weight classes are 172 (replacing 170), 189 (replacing 195), 215 (replacing 220) and 285.
The 182-pound weight class was eliminated in the reconfigured lineup.