The winter sports season seems to be in full swing with basketball and ice hockey returning. But the notable absences of indoor track and field and wrestling leaves a void in this early portion of 2021.
Wrestling in particular has stood out as a missing piece, due to the fact it will be taking place in Section VI's spring season for the first time ever. Although understanding of Section VI postponing its sport due to COVID-19, the local wrestling community is not on board with all of the ins and outs of how things played out.
Additionally, the emotional toll is also taking effect, with fear that the postponement is a precursor to an overall cancellation of the season.
"A decision in May to ultimately cancel the season would put the mental and physical health and development of athletes further at risk," Lewiston-Porter senior Ciaran Edwards wrote in a letter to Section VI's executive committee and executive director Mark DiFilippo.
"High school sports, and wrestling in particular, teach life lessons about hard work, teamwork, goal setting and discipline. Further, for many student-athletes, sports are a way to relieve stress and have social interactions with peers, both of which are extremely important, especially now. While I am lucky enough to be continuing my wrestling career in college, for my senior teammates, this could be their last opportunity to play organized sports."
Edwards' message is very pointed, as he shared several points as to why this decision may have been mishandled by county health officials.
For example, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited in the joint statement from the health directors of five Western New York counties recommending the postponement of the season didn't perfectly correlate with local plans for safe competition.
A December tournament in Florida, which brought together 130 wrestlers, coaches and officials over a two-day span, led to 79 positive COVID-19 cases between people who attended the event and close contacts, according to the MMWR. The positive tests meant student-athletes in the area missing an estimated 1,700 in-person school days.
Another tournament unconnected to the MMWR involved around 400 wrestlers Jan. 15-16 in Louisiana. Officials attributed over 20 positive virus cases to the event, which also included spectators. Video from the tournament showed a distinct lack of social distancing and mask wearing.
But Section VI officials were not planning on holding those kinds of large-scale tournaments this season, putting an emphasis on more dual meets, which would limit the amount of people in gyms. Florida also has much looser protocols for preventing the spread of coronavirus.
"This season, it is obvious that tournament-style competition is not the safest way to compete, as shown by the CDC report referenced by WNY health directors," Edwards said. "The solution to this would be to focus on dual, tri and quad meets as an alternative."
Since releasing this letter, Edwards said members of the Section VI executive committee have reached out to him to express how their intent is to have a wrestling season before the end of the school year. They shared that the lone alternative to postponement was to cancel the season altogether and they ultimately felt postponing to the spring provided the most realistic scenario in conducting a season.
Members of the committee could not deny there were fact-based arguments in Edwards' letter. Their intention was never to cancel the wrestling season, or any other season for that matter. Indoor track has been the lone sport cancelled, and that was due to a lack of facilities, not necessarily virus concerns.
Israel Martinez, the former Niagara Falls coach and current Section VI wrestling commissioner, said it's important to remember officials are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances. There is no playbook for conducting high school sports during a pandemic.
"When they wrote that letter, the five-county joint letter strongly recommending wrestling not start, it kind of tied our section's hands," Martinez said. "I don't blame them one bit for the decision that was mad because (while) they're an educational support institution through athletics, they're not going to go against the (health) department or country recommendations, especially when the New York State government says you can start high-risk sports as long as you receive clearance from your local health department.
"I don't know how much (local county health directors) know about what we had initially planned, but I think they've got a lot of other things on their plate as opposed to hearing from wrestling people on how we can run this safely. People are dying."
I don’t know how much they know about what we had initially planned, probably nothing, but I think they’ve got a lot of other things on their plate as opposed to hearing from wrestling people on how we can run this safely. People are dying.
North Tonawanda coach Wally Maziarz was initially excited about a potential Feb. 1 start for the season, but his high hopes quickly vanished with the postponement. And although the season has been delayed, Maziarz knows the community as a whole will keep pushing to make sure the season starts on time come May 10.
"This wrestling community, the coaches and everybody involved, we're not going down without a fight," Maziarz said. "We kind of feel a little bit slighted in a way just because we were identified as high-risk, but now you're talking about high-risk within high-risk. There's wrestling going on all around the country, the kids see that, so they know."
Maziarz and others have kept in contact with Martinez. They've discussed plans of what the 2021 season could look like, including dual matches instead of tournaments, no spectators, practices broken into pods separated by weight classes and continuing the extra steps for sanitization. There's even the potential for outdoor matches as the spring season includes all of June.
The NT coach shared how much wrestling has impacted himself as a former student-athlete. That's what's pushing him and others to make sure the kids can get their season in just like the other high-risk sports, as other counties in New York State have begun wrestling.
"I'm keeping in contact with the kids and they're all excited. As long as we get to wrestle, that's the main thing," Maziarz said.
"They get an opportunity to compete for, especially the seniors. Just for anybody in general, I know wrestling for me it's changed my life. And a lot of the guys I know that I still talk to, coaches in the area that grew up around wrestling ... if you talk to any of those guys, they'll tell you that wrestling's changed their lives for the better.
"Just giving the kids the opportunity to have that, that discipline and learning those skills that you learn wrestling to be a tough S.O.B in life, we hope that they don't get to miss out on that."
Maziarz also has sources close to this situation who discovered another tournament was referred to in making this decision. The Louisiana Classic wrestling tournament from Jan. 15 and 16 was discussed as well, after 20 reports of athletes, staff and attendees tested positive. But again, not only did this event have spectators, it also was held tournament style.
Maziarz was also shared a video of the Louisiana Classic, which showed a lack of social distancing, limited mask wearing and spectators crowding around the mats during matches.
For now, all Maziarz is doing is keeping in touch with his kids, as they safely train while waiting for the May 10 start.
"The wrestling community's tough man. That's one community (where) they're gonna fight, we're gonna fight tooth and nail to make sure we do get a season," Maziarz said.
"You knock us down, we're coming right back at you, that's always been the wrestling mentality. ... (But) as a coach, I don't want to get involved in anything that's gonna get me in trouble, so I've been staying in touch with the kids and making sure they're keeping weight down where they need to be, just getting some kind of cardio in because it's good for your mental health. You can't be sitting around and not doing anything at all."