John Jernegan picked up the phone from his car on a weekday afternoon in December. During a normal year, he would be in the wrestling room at Williamstown High School.
“Trying to do some Christmas shopping,” joked the veteran Braves’ wrestling coach. “It’s going to be my first December off since 2003. I’m going to enjoy the holidays, maybe go skiing and snowboarding. I never get to snowboard.”
After escaping COVID-19 unscathed last spring — the high-school wrestling season wrapped up less than a week after schools shut down last March — one of the area’s most popular winter sports experienced some whiplash a week before Thanksgiving (and two weeks before the season was set to begin).
The NJSIAA announced on Nov. 19 that this year’s wrestling season will no longer take place in the winter. Instead, it will fall under the newly formed hybrid season between winter and spring, when girls volleyball and gymnastics, two traditional fall sports, will also take place. During the 2020-’21 school year, wrestling will begin (matches can start on March 15) a week after the season normally ends.
“It’s just so weird for me,” longtime Seneca coach Greg Bauer said. “I’ve been involved in wrestling in the winter months for 39 years. But if this is going to give us a better chance to get a season in, if this is going to buy more time to come up with a way to do an individual postseason or something more for the kids, then I’m all for it.”
With COVID cases up once again and a somewhat tumultuous end to the fall season, South Jersey high school sports have once again gone dark. Gyms are closed. Many schools have gone strictly remote through the holidays.
The high school basketball season won’t get underway until Jan. 26. Swimming and track are tentatively scheduled to begin in mid-February.
But wrestling, perhaps the least social distance-friendly sport, has been shifted to a 5 ½-week sprint of a season from March 16 to April 24.
As with girls tennis before it, the wrestling season, as it’s set up now, will not have an individual season component. So in addition to no holiday tournaments or quad meets, there won’t be the usual district, regional and state tournaments for kids to compete in after the dual meet season and team titles are contested.
But when you consider the logistics of wrestling during a pandemic, perhaps having a season at all is a win in itself.
“It’s definitely trickier (than other sports),” Bauer said. “A contact sport is a contact sport, but wrestling is a little bit different. There is no such thing as social distancing in the sport and it’s indoors.
“I know some of the outdoor sports were able to have seasons pretty successfully,” he continued. “My own kids did soccer and were able to play since the summer with no incident. Wrestling is a little more difficult, honestly, but it can be done. There are club teams and college teams that are keeping their own bubbles. Beside their team, they’re not hanging out with any other people and they’re making it work.The logistics of the high- school season makes it kind of difficult to do that.”
Besides the fact that there’s a season scheduled at all, perhaps the other good bit of news for the wrestling community is that the NJSIAA and school administrators still have more than three months to figure it out.
“I feel like it’s going to be (OK),” Jernegan said. “Especially with the vaccine coming out and things are shutting down again now, right? Hopefully by March everything is good. But this is my third schedule I’m going off of now.”
Jernegan said he had about 45 kids come out for Williamstown’s team this year. But one promising freshman’s mom decided against letting her son wrestle (they thought basketball was safer) and a couple of other kids opted out because of COVID, too. It’s likely that other schools are experiencing similar dropoffs.
“It’s either that you’re going to take the risk,” Jernegan said, “or you’re not going to take the risk.”
At Cinnaminson, second-year coach Bobby Murray has already decided on one way to keep risks somewhat minimized.
“I was planning (to have my own team) drilling with just one kid,” he said of partnering up wrestlers. “Clearly if there’s an outbreak, everyone is going to get affected because you’re in the room, and whether masks are on or not. In football, if you’re coaching defensive linemen and linebackers, and you’re hitting and tackling, you’re exposed to a lot of people at that point. With wrestling, you try to limit it to as few contacts as possible.”
Similar to girls tennis players, wrestlers will have to focus on helping their teams compete for regional championships and put off individual goals for the 2021-’22 school year. And like girls volleyball players, they’ll have to overcome the disappointment of having their season postponed for a few months.
In an unpredictable 2020, you have to take what you can get and keep your fingers crossed for the near future, too.
“That’s the hardest part of the kids to understand,” Murray said of no individual tournaments of any kind.
“Wrestling as a sport, at the core of it … it’s a one-on-one match of individuals,” he continued. “Every kid wants to know where they rank, where they can finish. To take away the individual aspect of it is going to be tough for the kids to understand. But as a coach, it’s my responsibility to say, if this is what we can salvage out of the season, then this is what we have to do.
“Our goals have to shift a bit.”