There’s an eternal optimism and keen understanding of the world in Max Leete’s tone of voice, pandemic or not. That’s just part of the personality for the Danvers High star wrestler.
But as hopeful as the senior 126-pounder is, nothing in sports is certain in the world of COVID-19, especially in wrestling. The highest-contact MIAA sport sometimes gets a bad rap for its perceived lack of hygiene, and as the pandemic endures in Massachusetts, wrestlers and coaches are wondering if a spring season is feasible.
Normally this month, Leete would have started his final postseason quest to enter into Massachusetts wrestling royalty. He went 57-0 last season, was the Globe’s Division 2 Wrestler of the Year, and won his first New England championship. This year’s tournament, which would have taken place March 2-3, was canceled in October. A full senior year would have meant a shot at a fifth sectional title, a fourth Division 2 state title, and possibly becoming just the fourth wrestler in Massachusetts history to win four All-State titles.
“The titles are extremely important because they’re markers of success in a certain field,” Leete said.
Oh, and he’s also chasing the state record for wins. His 207 are 34 shy of the mark set by Mount Greylock’s Devin Pelletier in 2017.
“I’m hoping we can have more tournaments than dual meets because you get more matches and difficult bouts than in duals,” Leete said.
Now, the state’s best active wrestler trains twice a day, six days a week, with a small group at Doughboy Wrestling Club in Lowell or in private sessions with Chas Tucker, a Worcester native and former All-American wrestler for Cornell who went 28-0 as a senior last year.
If the mats are rolled out for high school competition in April, Leete and the rest of the state’s wrestlers will be ready after a 13-14-month layoff.
“I’ve definitely been watching my weight as I’ve been training, where if we did have a quicker season, I’d be ready to jump into the 126 weight class,” Leete said.
Later this month, Leete will balance training with Danvers’s Fall II football season. He’s the Falcons’ kicker, and a good one at that. In October 2019, Leete nailed a 21-yard field goal as time expired to give Danvers a 31-28 win over Marblehead and a share of the Northeastern Conference title.
The only difference this year? Pressure won’t get to him, but conditions might.
“I am a little nervous about how cold it’s going to be,” Leete said with a chuckle.
The fate of the wrestling season is in the hands of the MIAA wrestling committee and the organization’s board of directors. Committee president Paul Shvartsman, also the Burlington coach, said the committee hasn’t produced a formal plan to present to the board before the end of April.
The committee is monitoring the pandemic as vaccinations increase, hoping the state’s cases will be at a level manageable enough to allow for a sport where social distancing and mask-wearing is impossible.
Shvartsman wants wrestlers to get as many matches as possible, even if the season extends into the summer. The MIAA has made clear a spring postseason is a top priority for athletes who didn’t get one last year, and the wrestling committee hopes the MIAA will offer one to wrestling, even though it’s a winter sport. Last year’s New England tournament concluded March 8, just days before COVID-19-induced shutdowns.
“If it were up to me, we’d get a full postseason with sectionals, states, and All-States,” Shvartsman said.
Other ideas for a potential spring season include holding meets outdoors and allowing spring athletes who also wrestle to participate in both sports.
Leete has his collegiate future planned. He’ll wrestle for American University, where he’ll have a double major in Justice and Law, and African-American Studies. Leete, who is Black, wants to be a civil rights lawyer, and the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death last summer inspired him to make the move to Washington, D.C., in the fall.
“When it comes to politics and activism, Washington is the place you want to be right now,” Leete said.
It’s that optimism that defines Leete, on and off the mat, but like in all facets of life, the wrestling community has been forced to adapt because of the pandemic.
Leete deferred whatever negativity he felt toward the bigger picture. Returning to competition is a want, but not a need, a sign he and many of his fellow competitors wrestle with more than just the person across the mat.
“Everyone has a struggle right now,” he said.