Rochester boys wrestling coach Jason Dick can remember everything about the last time his team practiced. The time. The date (March 16, 2020). How many kids were in the room. It was one of the best practices his Twin City Wrestling Club team, comprised of wrestlers from all over the area, ever had. To top it off, Dick had just received news that three of his Rochester wrestlers had signed with college teams.
Then everything came to a halt. The state and all prep athletics were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March. Dick hasn’t been on a mat with his team since. He hasn’t been away from a mat for this long since he was a freshman at Elma in the early 90s.
The future isn’t looking anymore promising either as the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association released new guidelines Monday detailing the process for sports to commence this winter. It’s left Dick and other local high school coaches worried their teams may not get the opportunity to play the 2020-21 school year.
The WIAA executive board voted that for a sports season to take place, 50 percent of schools in a WIAA region (by classification) must be eligible to participate in league games, as per Washington State Department of Health guidelines. If a sport has below 50 percent of schools eligible to compete in any region, staff will notify schools of the adjusted season the sport would be planned to move. Region A includes Districts 1 and 2. Region B includes districts 3 and 4 and Region C has districts 5-9. All Lewis County schools are in District 4.
The WIAA will monitor the eligibility of schools based on the number of cases reported in their county, using data from Washington’s Risk Assessment Dashboard, with a final decision being made three weeks prior to the beginning of the season.
The WIAA’s updated return-to-play guidelines released on Oct. 6 divided sports into three categories: low risk (cross country, golf, swim/dive, tennis, track and field); medium risk (baseball, bowling, gymnastics, soccer, softball, volleyball); and high risk (basketball, football, wrestling).
Sport eligibility is tied with each county’s test rate and positivity rate. Counties with 75 cases per 100,000 or higher over a two-week period and a test positivity rate of 5 percent are considered high risk. Counties with 25-75 cases per 100,000 and less than 5 percent positivity rate are labeled moderate risk, while counties with less than 25 cases per 100,000 and fewer than a 5 percent positivity rate are considered low risk.
Lewis County is currently at 104.4 cases per 100,000 over a two-week period and has a 4.7 percent positivity rate as of Friday morning, placing it in the high-risk category, which means only low-risk sports can currently compete in league games here. Low- and moderate-risk sports can compete in league games once the county reaches 25-75 cases per 100,000 and less than 5 percent positivity rate. High-risk sports are unable to compete in league games until Lewis County reaches less than 25 cases per 100,000 and fewer than a 5 percent positivity rate.
“I understand where they’re coming from,” Dick said. “Wrestling is definitely a high-risk sport. It just really sucks. It’s really hard on the wrestlers, it’s hard on me, it’s hard on all of us right now. It’s going to crush the sport. It makes no sense that the highest-risk sport (wrestling) is going to be the first sport instituted back in. I don’t see us starting. Not at all. It breaks my heart.”
Dick is already seeing wrestlers in the USA wrestling community transfer out of state for the chance to wrestle this year. He expected this to happen, and for the WIAA to not lessen its restrictions for the upcoming athletic calendar. He and his fellow coaches have been talking about this scenario for a while now.
He’s also seen the potential for what could happen. When a wrestler catches a cold, the entire team eventually catches it. It happens every year, he said. This past winter, the first time in two decades of coaching, Dick was forced to pull his team out of a tournament because so many of his players were sick. He hopes the WIAA will move wrestling to spring and further away from flu season.
For now, his players message him all the time asking for updates on whether they’ll be able to wrestle this year. Wrestling season normally kicks off mid-November and teams around the county would be going full bore right now preparing for the regular season. But the Warriors, for now, are sidelined.
“They’re all depressed. They’re all down,” Dick said. “Everything’s in limbo. There’s nothing going on. It’s just the waiting game.”
Over in Onalaska, prospects are looking a little brighter for first-year volleyball coach Jenny Hamilton. Volleyball is considered a moderate-risk sport, meaning Lewis County only needs to reach 74 or fewer cases per 100,000 to be eligible for league play. And the season has already been moved to a March 1, 2021 start date. Still, she’s not totally optimistic county cases will be low enough by that time.
“I kind of thought it was something that was going to be coming down the pipeline because the cases started rising,” Hamilton said. “My initial reaction was disappointment because I feel like we’re fighting this losing battle with kids trying to start sports.”
Even more, she doesn’t see the WIAA or schools allowing a girls sport like volleyball to be played if a high-risk sport such as football ends up being canceled due to elevated cases. Even if some sports are able to play at some point, the postseason could be even trickier to navigate.
The WIAA stated in its press release Monday, “Each sport will conclude with a WIAA region culminating event during the final week of its scheduled season. The minimum requirement to hold a regional event is eight participating schools within a single classification of a region. If a classification cannot meet that requirement, they will have the option to combine with another classification in the Region for the culminating event.”
Either way, Hamilton and Dick just hope they get a chance for their kids to compete at some point this year in some capacity. Sports for youth goes far beyond the game, they both said, and it has further-reaching implications down the road for when they become adults.
“I just know how important it is for these kids to have sports right now,” Hamilton said. “You see Facebook comments saying, ‘Sports aren’t everything. School’s more important.’ I can tell you that sports are important and no it’s not everything, but sports mold kids into better people for the future. Coaches make impacts on kids. It shows them how to work, determination and grit. Their want to go to school and get good grades, that’s going away.”
Dick had similar thoughts, stressing the importance athletics plays in the bigger picture for these kids who rely on sports to carry them in other aspects of their lives.
“It’s less about the sport and more about getting the kids involved,” Dick said. “The leadership skills, the accountability, the drive. Dan Gable said it best: ‘Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.’ Society and our youth need this with all this stuff going on and politics and everything. We need this and we can’t do it.”