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High school wrestling bumped to summer due to COVID-19

Wrestling is the only sport on the IHSA’s winter calendar that isn’t scheduled to start practice on Nov. 16 with competition allowed to begin on Nov. 30.

Two-time Public League champion Joey Arroyo of Taft, in blue, is preparing for a prep wrestling season that’s now scheduled to begin in April.
Two-time Public League champion Joey Arroyo of Taft, in blue, is preparing for a prep wrestling season that’s now scheduled to begin in April.
Photo courtesy of Taft/Jared Wallace.

Some kids can’t wait for Christmas, but there’s a different date on Joey Arroyo’s mind and it’s a moving target.

The Taft senior has been looking forward to his final season of high school wrestling for months. On Wednesday, he found out the wait will be another five months longer.

The Illinois High School Association announced wrestling, considered a higher risk sport by under the state’s COVID-19 guidelines, will move to the summer season, which runs from April 19 to June 26.

That makes it the only sport on the IHSA’s winter calendar that isn’t scheduled to start practice on Nov. 16 with competition allowed to begin on Nov. 30.

“Honestly, I’m disappointed,” said Arroyo, who is a two-time Public League champ. “I wanted to wrestle sooner.”

His coach, Brad Engel, is taking a glass half-full approach.

“I’m happy we’ve got a solid date now,” Engel said. “We can make some plans and go from there.”

Still, there are plenty of questions for Taft, which has aspirations beyond Public League titles.

“We’ve said from the beginning, we don’t want to just be ‘city good,’” Engel said. “We want to be ‘state good.’”

And the best path to that goal is by competing against suburban schools. Whether that will be allowed remains to be seen, Current IHSA guidelines allow competition only within a conference or state COVID-19 region. With Chicago being its own region, that would limit Taft to meets against the rest of the Public League and a few private schools in the city limits.

“It’s a setback if we can’t wrestle all the teams we’re going to see in the state series,” Engel said.

On the other end of the city, Bowen coach Ron Wilson has similar concerns. He also loads up his schedule with suburban teams, again with the goal of succeeding in the state series.

It paid off last season when the Boilermakers won a regional title with 11 freshmen in the lineup. Getting those younger wrestlers more experience is crucial, which is why Wilson can see the upside in the IHSA decision.

“It could be worse,” he said. “They could say, no season at all.”

But given COVID-19 mitigation measures used by fall sports, Wilson knows any season will look different. The Public League tournament seems unlikely to be held because of limitations on the number of athletes in any competition.

Without that annual showcase for CPS wrestlers and given the delayed season, Wilson wonders how recruiting will be affected.

“I would rather have a season than not have a season,” he said. “But it’s going to hurt seniors who are trying to get looked at. That’s a real concern.”

Oak Park-River Forest’s Paul Collins is one of a group of coaches who advocated delaying the season.

“My thought ... especially now with the rising case (numbers) and how our state is handling things, was in order for us to have some semblance of a season and real practices, we were going to have to push it as far as possible,” Collins said.

The new IHSA schedule would overlap the summer club season, but that’s a secondary concern at the moment.

“One of my greatest fears is they were going to start the season but shut it down two weeks in and just cancel us,” Collins said. “I think (this) gives our seniors and our program the best chance to have a season.”

And giving athletes some hope is important right now. Arroyo can attest to that after spending months training on his own or with small groups of teammates.

“Mentally, it’s actually been a challenge,” he said. “Some days you want to push more than what you can do.

“Other days, you get these thoughts, ‘How much longer do I have to keep doing this?’”