Mountain Valley senior Anthony Mazza has already chalked up 2020 as a lost year for his athletic career. Now he’s wondering if 2021 will at least give him a chance.

Mountain Valley senior Anthony Mazza has his arm raised by the referee after winning a wrestling match last season. Marie Lane photo

The Class B wrestling state runner-up at 160 pounds last season as a junior and at 152 in 2019 (and fourth overall at 138 as a freshman) was looking forward to having one last crack at an elusive state championship in 2021. But the prospects for that happening seem to be dwindling by the day.

“It sucks,” said Mazza, already a member of Mountain Valley’s 100-win club in wrestling. “I feel like I’ve lost most of my high school athletic career. I’ll have gone pretty much a full year (without athletics) if we don’t have wrestling, which is terrible.”

Also a standout on the baseball diamond and football gridiron, Mazza lost his spring season with the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in March, then had to settle for 7-on-7 flag and touch football scrimmages this fall.

Ironically, if Mazza and the rest of Maine’s high school wrestlers do have a season, it will start on Feb. 22, nearly one year since they competed in the New England qualifier last Feb. 29.

The Maine Principals’ Association last week delayed the start due to wrestling’s designation as a high-risk activity under the state’s community sports guidelines. That category, in which only wrestling falls under among the MPA winter sports, limits participants to team-based practices with physically distanced activities and no competition within teams or against other schools.

Games in other winter sports are tentatively scheduled to begin on Jan. 11, 2021.

The high-risk status for wrestling derives from the close proximity of the participants and the Nov. 4 executive order by Gov. Janet Mills requiring all high school sports participants to wear masks at all times, except for swimmers when they are in the water.

Lisbon/Oak Hill wrestling coach Schyler Gagnon said sanitization has long been a routine part of the sport of wrestling due to the risk of transmission of infections such as MRSA. But having wrestlers compete while wearing masks, though necessary, would be virtually impossible.

“We’ve always done a pretty good job of sanitizing and keeping kids safe from infections,” he said. “But when you’re talking about something that travels through the air like this, wrestling has the steepest hill to climb (in being able to prevent transmission) of all of the high school sports.”

“And practicing is really tough when you talk about maintaining distance, that means you can’t even drill,” he added. “There’s really nothing you can do.”

At this time of year, wrestlers normally are gearing up for preseason meets such as the Westlake Memorial Wrestling Tournament in Bath, which is typically held in late November or early December.

This year, though, whatever workouts wrestlers are doing are typically on their own or with a sibling who also wrestles. That has been the case since the summer, when high school sports were limited to non-contact “skills and conditioning” practices.

A delay in the season is better than a cancellation, Gagnon said, but that’s assuming wrestlers and their parents would be comfortable with a return to competition, even with a vaccine. And even a season that runs from late February to April vacation could force some wrestlers to choose between wrestling or a spring sport such as baseball.

Gagnon said that he has given his wrestlers exercises and workout routines to get into or maintain their fitness for a February start, but with the number of infections rising across the state, optimism for any kind of season is low.

“I’m talking with mostly the upperclassmen, and it’s a lot of trying to not get their hopes up, just based on the numbers (of infections) that we’re seeing everywhere now,” he said. “I don’t know how we could feasibly do tournaments if the numbers don’t start to come down soon.”

The Oak Hill/Lisbon co-op had eight wrestlers last year. Three were seniors. Gagnon said he had two incoming freshmen who wrestled last year for a thriving middle school program.

It is the presence of that middle school program and the fact that he only has one senior on this year’s roster that makes Gagnon confident the program could withstand a one-year hiatus from competition. But he worries about other programs that may not have a strong feeder system not being able to regain their footing.

“It might hurt us short-term for the next two years or so,” he said. “But wrestling isn’t the type of sport you pick up late. You don’t decide all of a sudden when you’re a junior that you’re going to wrestle. Kids in this sport usually start when they’re in youth programs or middle school, or when they’re freshmen in high school. So any programs that don’t have that feeder system could have a hard time.”

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