With any opportunity for a normal season well past, Warren County’s wrestling team is taking a different approach in 2020-21.
Wildcat teams of the past would enter a season with aspirations of winning district and region titles, earning a top-five spot in the state tournament and preparing wrestlers for shots at state gold. But in a year when COVID-19 has hurled speed bump after speed bump at sports across all levels of competition, the Wildcats of 2020 are just eager for the chance to compete.
Longtime head coach Matt Wadas said last week that because of the circumstances, which include a condensed wrestling season that could at any moment be brought to a halt and practices that require social distancing when practicable and frequent sanitizing, the first week of practice was hardly business as usual at Warren County. Instead, he’s been preaching to his wrestlers a simple message: enjoy the time on the mat.
“We’re just enjoying. That’s my keyword,” Wadas said. “We haven’t had meetings like I always do. We haven’t had practices in any shape or form like usual. I come in that room and I tell the kids listen, there are complete whole states that can’t wrestle. Our superintendent has supported getting these kids safely into some sports and we’ve just got to enjoy the time because who knows, two weeks from now the VHSL (Virginia High School League) could say we’re done. So let’s get out there, let’s wrestle, let’s have fun, let’s get out of the house. The only rules that we’ve even talked about are just safety rules. That’s it. Otherwise, it’s just let’s get in and have fun. That’s what we’ve really been focusing on, and if we do get to have some competitions, it’ll just be the cherry on top of the cake.”
The Wildcats, Wadas said, have been receptive to that approach, and he added that the wrestling room has been an “escape” of sorts for his athletes. Of course, when they’re afforded the chance to get on the mat this winter they’ll compete to win, but for now, they’re just happy to be on the mat.
“Our mindset’s pretty much just focus on just getting ready for the next day and we’ll go from there,” senior Cody Crawford said. “Just gotta put the work in every day because you never know when your last chance is gonna come.”
Crawford, a 126-pounder, is one of the few returning senior Wildcats who entered the season entrenched in Warren County’s lineup, a list that Wadas said last week included classmates Brad Adams, a 106-pounder who missed last year’s postseason with a concussion, 170-pounder Brennan Komelasky, a region runner-up and state qualifier last year and the most experienced wrestler on Warren County’s roster, and Wes Merchant (220).
Beyond that, the Wildcats are so young this winter – younger than they’ve ever been in Wadas’ 15-year tenure, he said – that Wadas was unable to confidently lay out a projected starting lineup during the first week of practice.
“That’s a whole set of challenges in itself,” Wadas said of that youth, “but like I said, we’re just not gonna focus on the negatives. There’s too many out there. Youth is fun, it’s exciting. Kids are hungry. I don’t have a lot of kids in there that are just going through the motions when we hit some of the basics. There’s positives of it but, yeah, we are young. We are real young.”
Those young wrestlers will have fewer chances to cut their teeth at the varsity level this winter, compared to traditional years. In the VHSL’s condensed-season model, teams are limited to eight contests that are capped at four teams. While many wrestlers in the past have logged at least 40 matches before the start of the postseason, they’ll be lucky to get 20 this winter.
Wadas, however, is fine with that, and noted that he’s always been of the opinion that high school grapplers wrestle “too much.” Instead of worrying about getting a set number of matches to prepare for the postseason, Wadas said the Wildcats are prioritizing staying healthy and using their time wisely. Not “over-wrestling,” he added, can be good for athletes’ bodies.
“Less matches can mean more practice time, more rest time, more chances for us to focus on eating right and our weight,” Wadas said. “There are some positives that can come from this schedule.”
Warren County’s schedule, like many others’, has been and figures to remain a fluid situation as many surrounding schools – including a few in the Class 3 Northwestern District – have opted to delay the starts of their own winter seasons in response to rising virus numbers. As of Wednesday, Warren County was scheduled to wrestle its first match on Tuesday.
Wadas said his assistant coach, Chad Billy, noted recently that the “better” teams in 2020-21 could end up being the teams that can consistently field a full lineup, something that could be a challenge in the current climate.
“With sicknesses and illness, who knows what we’ll have week to week. If we make it to February and things are going well, I think we’ll start changing practices, I think we’ll start changing mindsets to really try to make a postseason run, especially for my seniors,” Wadas said. “But until then, we’re just enjoying it. We’re gonna go out and compete, we’re gonna have fun. I’m not worried about a record or wins and losses or anything like that.”