Friday night lights are back in a way Massachusetts high school sports have never seen.
No, bright lights are not just for football (see the Fall II season) or baseball, softball, or lacrosse this spring.
For the first time in state history, a number of wrestling meets will take place outdoors in spring weather as the sport resumes after a 14-month absence because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Illinois and New York are among the states that have held outdoor wrestling meets during the pandemic.
The state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs ruled wrestling to be unsafe for competition in the 2020-21 winter season during the pandemic. The MIAA Board of Directors unanimously approved competition modifications for the spring season on April 30, four days after practices began.
Wakefield, the 2019-20 Middlesex Liberty Division champion, kicked off its season Friday with an 18-15 win over Reading on Wakefield’s football field under the lights with temperatures in the low 50s. Wakefield — whose athletic director, Brendan Kent, is chair of the MIAA Wrestling Committee — will wrestle all of its home meets on the school’s football field, weather permitting.
“We’re just trying to make it as fun as we can. I don’t want it to feel like a lost season for them, especially for the seniors,” Wakefield coach Ross Ickes said.
Programs have already grappled with their new modifications, and some leagues are stricter than others. Competitions will be limited: new MIAA modifications only allow for a maximum of three teams at a meet this season. Large, all-day quad meets and individual tournaments that are the staple of wrestling on Saturdays during a normal winter season are taking a year off.
Teams are encouraged to arrive fully dressed for meets, but locker rooms are open at 50 percent capacity. Practices should be limited to small group training sessions, with cohorts at least 14 feet apart. And of course, masks must be worn during practices and competitions; coaches say they’ll abide by that ruling, but they’ve caused a few grievances.
“Wrestling with masks is difficult. We probably break 30 masks a day as a team. We’ll make do, but it’s difficult,” Ickes said.
Haverhill, situated on the New Hampshire border, knows wrestling can be done safely because the Granite State was allowed to compete in the winter. A number of Haverhill wrestlers also trained in the offseason at Smitty’s Wrestling Barn in Kingston, N.H. and none contracted COVID-19.
“Being a border town has made this process very frustrating because we witness first-hand seconds away from us that life is different,” Haverhill coach Tim Lawlor said. “It was tough for our kids because they watched Timberlane [in Plaistow, N.H.] have a season and Salem [N.H.] have a season, and they saw that it could happen.
“They were just holding out hope and it was tough.”
Many leagues are also allowing only league competition, which makes scheduling more matches difficult. The Bay State Conference is clearing teams to wrestle on a town-by-town basis — Natick is still waiting for approval. The Tri-Valley League is allowing two out-of-league events, something Ashland coach Pete Zacchilli is using to his team’s advantage. The Clockers’ first match is next Friday at home against Norwood, also on Ashland’s football field, but he’d like to schedule a nonleague match with Boston Latin and a tri-meet with Hingham and Plymouth South.
“A lot of these schools are just getting their schedules together now,” Zacchilli said.
Wrestling teams are also struggling to compete with other spring teams in roster size; multiple coaches have reported that some of their best wrestlers opted to play a spring sport because they will get the chance to play in an MIAA-approved postseason.
Haverhill usually has 30-35 wrestlers in a typical season, but is down to 17 or 18, Lawlor said. The Hillies also lost four starters to spring sports, including Jackson DeFlores, who would have been their captain this year, but opted to play volleyball because it’s his number one sport.
Numbers are only slightly down in Ashland, Zacchilli said, thanks to the fact that approximately 70 percent of Ashland’s wrestlers play football. Zacchilli is Ashland’s offensive coordinator. Wakefield has approximately 40 wrestlers each season, but is down to 28 this season. Ickes lost six wrestlers to baseball, including his own twin sons, juniors Luke and Nathan. Ickes respected their decision because baseball is their top sport, they have a chance to play in the postseason, and hope to get recruited for college baseball.
“Baseball has a state tournament. I wasn’t surprised,” Ickes said.
Just as the wrestling community held out hope for a 2021 season, they’re again hoping for a state tournament, potentially in a dual meet format that would minimize the amount of teams and wrestlers, thus minimizing the risk of COVID-19 transmission. The Massachusetts Wrestling Coaches Association Duals, which has been held separately as an unofficial dual meet state tournament in recent years, has been very successful.
“If we can wrestle for an MIAA state championship, we want to do that,” Zacchilli said.
▪ There may not be an official state tournament this season, but there will be an unofficial one in … New Hampshire. The Massachusetts Wrestling Association, the state’s sector of the United States Wrestling Association, will host an individual tournament at The Hampshire Dome in Milford, N.H. from June 25-26. A girls’ state tournament will take place June 26 at the same site.
▪ If there’s one team that got better in wrestling’s absence, it’s St. John’s Prep. The perennial state championship contender will start the season with three All-Americans on its roster, highlighted by National High School Coaches Association Senior Nationals champion Nick Curley (113 pounds), sophomore Tyler Knox (seventh at 120 pounds), and freshman Dylan Greenstein (eighth, 195 pounds).