Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s declaration that high school sports, save the remaining playoff football games, have been suspended has some wrestling coaches and event organizers both frustrated and confused about what is next.
The 2020-21 wrestling season is prepared to enter a new frontier as girls wrestling has been sanctioned by the Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA). But this exciting new aspect for wrestling, like all other winter sports, has been put on hold with the new mandates the governor outlined on Sunday night to fight the state’s recent surge in COVID-19 cases.
There are significant detractors of these mandates in the wrestling community among head coaches and other prominent figures in amateur wrestling in Utah like Cole Kelley.
“Never in American history have we quarantined the healthy to protect the vulnerable,” Kelley said. “The statistics are clear. COVID-19 is most serious for the elderly and those with multiple comorbidities. Kids competing in high school activities are not a high risk of hospitalization or death in relation to COVID-19.”
Kelley also worries that by banning school events like dances and high school athletics that kids will engage in more risky behaviors to seek the natural need to socialize.
“Cancelling organized opportunities for kids to participate will not prevent kids from gathering,” Kelley said. “It will simply push them to gather in unorganized and dangerous scenarios. Would the governor prefer kids to be gathered in a high school wrestling room or throwing boxing gloves on with no supervision in a tucked-away location? It is a mistake to take away what has proven to be structured ways for kids to express themselves.”
Westlake head coach Cody Burdett sees the two-week delay as being potentially a huge setback for his program.
“The impact on a two week delay has caused a lot of anxiety and stress in my wrestlers and parents,” Burdett said. “I am worried that the new wrestlers I’ve been recruiting won’t end up trying out. I’m concerned that parents may pull their wrestler out of the sport. For many, the only reason they come to school and try to get good grades is so they can wrestle.”
American Fork head wrestling coach Eric Spencer also sees irony in the fact that the football playoffs will go on while other sports are halted.
“Why let football finish the season if this (COVID-19) is such a big deal?” Spencer said “If it really is this serious, then shut it down. But it’s not. So we will play football for two more weeks, then shut down winter sports. Garbage. If it is not safe to wrestle, if it’s not safe to play basketball, then it should not be safe to play football.”
Burdett agrees with Spencer.
“The idea of delaying the start of wrestling, swimming, and basketball while still allowing football stinks of hypocrisy, and maybe even corruption,” Burdett said. “Furthermore, allowing private swim, wrestling, and basketball clubs to remain open because they are a business is absolute insanity. I have to ask myself, how is this going to help stop the spread? Either open it up to all or shut it all down. The governor’s willingness to kowtow to private business while stepping on the neck of the UHSAA is ridiculous. As a man who tries to use common sense, I’m having a hard time seeing any around me.”
Eric Spencer’s brother Kip, who coaches at Spanish Fork High School, hopes that the season would be extended and feels that his building program will be at a disadvantage compared to the traditional wrestling powerhouses.
“I hope they would move the entire season back, but by doing so they would need to move spring seasons back too,” Kip Spencer said. “If this is not possible, then just run the regular dates (for upcoming meets and tournaments).
“I think programs like Payson, Pleasant Grove and Wasatch will be at an advantage because they have a lot of wrestlers that have a lot of experience. We have a really good team right now, and if we can train our sophomore and first year guys this year, we can keep that trend. We could be good for years to come. If we don’t get a long enough, or even a season this year, it will be like starting this program all over again.”
Burdett has a definite schedule in mind on when to resume practice and competition.
“The best time to start back up is as soon as possible — practicing on Nov. 23 and competing on Dec. 8 (the second Tuesday in December),” Burdett said.
Chad Blevins, who has double duty as an assistant wrestling coach at Mountain View High School while also being the assistant wrestling director for the UHSAA, said important conversations about the season are taking place this week including when practices can officially start and when the first competitions can begin.
“I’m grateful for the amount of time and energy that the executive directors at the UHSAA are spending to determine the best course of action for the start date and format of this upcoming season,” Blevins said. “The UHSAA is working closely with the Utah Wrestling Coaches Association representatives on these critical items.”
Blevins also noted that the UHSAA has already passed some modifications for competition this year, all prior to the governor’s press conference Sunday. There were already limits placed on how many competitors and fans there could be at tournaments, and the state tournaments will all be one-day tournaments with only one classification competing at the site at a time.
Blevins doesn’t anticipate that the season would be extended into late February or early March unless the start of the season is pushed back into January. At that point, that could be considered.
Even if the mandate to postpone the start of winter sports lasts just two weeks, there will be competitive casualties. For example, the Wrestling Against Cancer Duals set for Nov. 24 at Provo and Westlake High Schools has been canceled.