Since his freshman year, Noble High’s Josh Cote had set a goal of becoming the first four-time state champion in the school’s historic program. Now a senior, he won’t get the chance because of the coronavirus pandemic. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Were it not for the coronavirus pandemic, Noble High senior Josh Cote would have had the chance to become the first four-time state champion in the school’s distinguished wrestling history. Instead, he’s annoyed and frustrated by the state’s unwillingness to try to put together a wrestling season – especially because a few miles from the North Berwick school, the wrestling season is already underway.

“Look at New Hampshire. Fifteen miles away in New Hampshire they’re having their season, and here at Noble, I can’t even touch my teammates,” Cote said.

Cote, 18, is a thoughtful, well-spoken and determined young man. He strongly believes he and other athletes were unreasonably stripped of their high school seasons and opportunities to achieve goals, in the name of protecting them and the greater community from contracting COVID-19.

“I know I’m not the only athlete, let alone senior athlete, that feels this way. I’ve seen it all over social media, Facebook, whatever. It just shows I’m not the only one uptight and upset about this,” Cote said.

“Just from my own point of view and taking my own goals into account, I feel robbed,” Cote said. “I feel I definitely earned my chance to lead my team to another state tournament, another possible state title, and a chance to get my fourth state title, which is something I’ve been talking about since I was a freshman.”

The Maine Principals’ Association first pushed the start of the wrestling season from December to Feb. 22, then last week decided to wait until that day to even make a determination on when, or if, a season will happen. The MPA’s guidelines, as well as the state’s Community Sports Guidelines, consider wrestling a high-risk sport during the pandemic.

But even if some interscholastic matches are allowed, there will be no state championships. Right now, wrestlers are allowed to take part in conditioning drills with their teammates, but they cannot actually wrestle against each other during practices.

IMPRESSIVE CAREER RECORD

Cote knew as a freshman when he won his first state title at 120 pounds he had the skill and determination to do something no other Noble wrestler had done. As a sophomore, he won the Class A championship at 126 pounds despite missing six weeks because of a midseason bout of pneumonia. As a junior, his 132-pound title win by pin clinched the team championship for Noble, the 14th in school history but first since 2011. The Knights won 11 of 13 Class A titles from 1999-2011.

Cote’s overall record is 120-13. His only loss to an in-state wrestler was as a freshman when his teammate, Sam Martel, beat him at the Noble Invitational after Cote didn’t make the 120-pound weight and met Martel at 126.

“I would have expected him to be in the running for a fourth state title, that’s for sure,” said Noble Coach Kevin Gray.

As a senior, Cote has attended a handful of conditioning practices where he can’t even lay hands on a teammate. Even if a mini season does happen, there will not be state championships.

“I had the opportunity to literally be a legend within that Noble program and that’s gone now,” Cote said. “The state legislation and the MPA chose to have it this way.”

For wrestlers, much of their legacy is based on career accomplishments. How many state titles? How many total wins? Those are finite statements that reflect the grueling dedication their sport demands.

Bonny Eagle’s Frost brothers – from left to right, Cameron, Colby and Caden – would have all vied for state wrestling championships this year. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

At nearby Bonny Eagle in Standish, this could have been the year when all three Frost brothers won a state title. Senior Colby and junior Caden are defending Class A champs at 126 and 106 pounds, respectively. Cameron Frost, Caden’s twin, would likely have been at a weight class where he wasn’t giving up 10-12 pounds every match as he’d done his first two years at 113 pounds, when he finished third (Cote’s younger brother, Derek, won the 113-pound title).

Wells senior Jonah Potter was on track to break the school’s all-time wins record of 180, set by three-time state champ Michael Curtis from 2011-15. Potter recently committed to wrestle at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where Curtis wrestled as a collegian.

“I told Jonah, now he just has to beat Curtis’ win total in college,” said Wells Coach Scott Lewia.

For Massabesic senior Noah Beal-Hernandez, this might have been the year to win a New England championship after placing sixth as a sophomore and fifth as a junior after rolling through Maine with a 56-0 record.

It’s not just seniors who are missing out. Take Jackson Sutherland, a junior at Mattanawcook Academy in Lincoln. A  two-time champ with a 120-4 career record (and no in-state losses), he will have no shot to join the state’s 24-member four-time champion club. It also eliminates any chance Sutherland had of breaking the state record of 248 career wins set in 2017 by Bradley Beaulieu of Marshwood.

“He’s not pleased,” Mattanawcook Coach Matt Lindsay said of Sutherland. “But you’ve got to roll with it.”

For much of the winter, Cote says he thought he made his peace with not having a senior season. It wasn’t until he actually got into the gym with teammates for some conditioning that what he was missing really hit home. The team’s regular wrestling room, decorated with their championship banners, is closed to the wrestlers. It is being used to store PPE supplies. No contact is allowed in practice. Noble’s annual trips out of state to test the team’s mettle won’t happen. The Noble Invitational won’t be held.

“Thinking about the season beforehand, I was more like, ‘It is what it is, can’t change it.’ But now, seeing the limitations before us first hand, it really did aggravate me and to be honest it breaks my heart,” Cote said.

MOST STATES OFFERING WRESTLING

Noble High’s Josh Cote holds up three fingers after winning his third consecutive state wrestling title last winter at the Class A meet at Sanford High. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

That loss is only intensified because Cote is well aware that wrestling is taking place in New Hampshire – “our only bordering state,” as he put it. Cote regularly travels to Smitty’s Wrestling Barn in Kingston, New Hampshire, for full-contact training sessions. The New Hampshire high school season is limited to dual meets.

Across the country, high school wrestling is taking place, with 33 of 49 states (Mississippi does not offer high school wrestling) having some form of season-ending tournament, according to Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine. Eight other states are competing but have not determined whether to hold a season-ending event. Vermont and Hawaii are the only states to officially cancel the entire season.

There have been significant COVID-19 outbreaks associated with wrestling. In Florida, two tournaments held in early December led to 38 of 130 athletes, coaches and referees being diagnosed with COVID-19. Only 54 attendees were tested, so the transmission rate may have been higher. Additionally, there was significant spread to close contacts and the outbreaks led to 1,700 in-person school days lost because of quarantining, according to the report, first published on the United States Centers for Disease Control.

Mattanawcook’s Lindsay noted Florida’s wrestlers were competing, without wearing masks, in full gyms in multi-team tournaments.

“I’m not saying we jump to that, but I do think we could do it fairly safely,” Lindsay said. “Unfortunately, the timeline is getting crunched.”

Lindsay said he’s hopeful Maine’s wrestlers could still get a monthlong season before spring sports starts. He’s confident that MPA assistant executive director Mike Bisson, who is on the organization’s wrestling committee, “has absolutely the best interest of the kids in mind.”

Cote is not optimistic any form of a season will happen. He is already looking forward to a college wrestling career, possibly at the University of Southern Maine, where he’s been accepted into the mechanical engineering program. What he does know is that wrestling has prepared him to meet difficult challenges.

“Wrestling has taught me a lot about perseverance and how to get through tough situations. You can use that failure. It’s not a negative but it’s an opportunity for growth.”


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