Normally at this time of year, Montana’s two men’s college wrestling programs would already be a month into their season with dozens of matches under their belts. But due to COVID-19, competition won’t begin until later this month.
The University of Providence, which has instituted remote learning for the entire semester, won’t have athletes back on campus until Dec. 7 and won’t start practice until Dec. 10. The Argos won’t scrimmage until Jan. 4 and won’t compete until Jan. 6. Practice will look a lot different when the team does return to the mats.
“We are going to be splitting our team up a little bit to minimize the amount of individuals within the practice. We're very fortunate to have a very large facility,” said UP second-year head coach Steve Komac. “So even though there’s no way to make wrestling a socially distanced sport, as far as the numbers of kids working out and the amount of people getting together at any certain time, we certainly do have a lot of control over that kind of stuff."
Meanwhile, in Havre the MSU-Northern Lights have been on the practice mats for a few weeks with protocols to limit interactions in place.
“We've had to get creative with practice plans and weight cutting,” said Lights head coach Tyson Thivierge. “It’s a whole new world. And as much as we're not enjoying it, we're making due with our situation and trying to keep these guys focused on the end goal."
The Lights are planning to hold a Maroon and Gold wrestle-off scrimmage on Dec. 10 and will open competition starting Dec. 19 in Nebraska. Due to NAIA protocols, there will be no open tournaments this year, only duals, which means coaches will have to get creative with lineups.
“We're going to play with the lineup a little bit, figure out we've got, we've got a little more time,” Thivierge said. “So the positives coming out of this, we have a little more time to figure out who's ready for the postseason. It's hard to do with duals but I see advantages in it -- not many, but there are advantages to it.”
It’s a year that’s bound to be full of challenges as teams deal with the logistics of travel, practice and competition while striving to keep everyone healthy and doing their part to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
And if those challenges disrupt the season, the NAIA preemptively ruled that this year won’t count against the eligibility of any athlete. Both coaches are very appreciative of that decision.
The challenges are many for NAIA wrestling teams. And though they will compete this year, the potential for a disrupted season remains. That’s why both coaches appreciate the NAIA stepping up and granting an extra year of eligibility to every student-athlete, regardless of level.
"The NAIA also believes this is not a championship experience to have such a muddy competition season,” Thivierge said. “They want these kids to have an experience of a lifetime. And I was grateful to the NAIA for doing that.”
Both teams have high hopes for the season. MSU-Northern was ranked No. 12 in the preseason NAIA poll with two wrestlers ranked No. 1 in their weight class, defending national champion Nick Kunz (125 pounds) and NAIA runner-up Isaac Bartel (197).
Chase Short (No. 10 at 174), Steeler French (No. 14 at 184) and Clayton Currier (No. 18 at 141) were also ranked for the Lights.
The Argos weren’t ranked as a team in the preseason since they hadn’t released a schedule yet, but they will have several wrestlers jump into the next batch of polls led by Jordan Komac and Hayden Schrull.
As of right now, the NAIA is still planning to host its wrestling championships in early March. What happens between now and then is largely out of the hands of coaches, so they’re making sure to focus on the athletes in front of them. The priority is keeping them healthy and focused, come what may.
“Across the country, people are trying to figure out at all levels how to take care of kids,” Komac said. “They’re at a pretty healthy age group, so that's a good thing. But we have to find out how to take care of their education and athletic situation right at the moment during these tough times.”