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How will college’s dual season affect 2021 NCAA qualifying?

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Updated: December 22, 2020

Photo:  No schools have won more EIWA championships than Lehigh and Cornell. They will not face each other this winter because of COVID cancellations.

(Note: The following story appeared in the December issue of WIN Magazine. Click here or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe to WIN.

By Mike Finn

Many of college wrestling’s leaders have been trying to promote duals as a better way of promoting the sport and something that can save some endangered programs.

In this current age of a pandemic, dual meets could actually save a college wrestling season.

Unlike past Division I wrestling seasons that begin in November and include many individual tournaments like the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational — which was held annually in December for the past 30 years — it appears that most NCAA Division I college programs won’t start competing until early January. And there will be only dual-meet competition before post-season tournaments begin in late February.

But only a few programs like Iowa State had officially announced an official schedule as of mid-December.

“It’s nice to get a schedule out, given everything that’s been thrown at us,” said Cyclone coach Kevin Dresser. “Like with other sports, this season will look different, however we are excited to get back on the mat in January.”

At this point, wrestling programs in the Big 12, ACC, EIWA, Pac-12, Southern Conference and Mid-American Conference had announced some form of dual-meet competition.

The Big Ten was expected to also announce a conference-only dual meet schedule in mid to late December.

“To my knowledge, it looks like we are starting the weekend of January 9 and we will have a nine-week season leading up to the Big Tens and NCAAs,” said Michigan coach Sean Bormet, whose Wolverine team is ranked second behind Iowa in WIN Magazine’s Tournament Power Index. “It looks like we will have nine competitions. We might not compete every week.

“Us coaches and fans and wrestlers would like to know (what the plans are). I’ve got to believe it will be in the next week or two, since we’ve seen other conferences release schedules.”

Unfortunately, not all Division I wrestlers will get a chance to compete this winter after the Ivy League — which sponsors six wrestling programs at Cornell, Princeton, Brown, Harvard, Columbia and Penn — announced that all winter sports seasons would be cancelled in 2020-21.

“I am terribly disappointed and I’m not going to pretend I agree with it,” said Koll. “It’s frustrating that the greatest minds are in the Ivy League and we can’t figure out how to make this work. Football and other sports have shown they can do it safely.”

Koll’s teams had twice finished as high as second at the NCAAs in his 28 years at the Big Red helm. They were expected to feature a talented line-up of many wrestlers who took an Olympic redshirt a year ago, including two-time NCAA champion Yianni Diakomihalis.

The Ivy League schools have also competed in the annual Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association tournament, the nation’s oldest postseason tournament that began in 1905. The remaining 11 schools that compete in the EIWA will schedule dual-meet competitions this winter — including a season-opening dual between Lehigh and Hofstra on Jan. 2 — and will compete in an EIWA tournament that has tentatively been scheduled to begin on Feb. 26 at a site to be determined. That is a week before the EIWA was originally scheduled.

The same can be said of the ACC and Southern Conference tournaments, which are scheduled to take place in the North Carolina communities of Raleigh and Boone, respectively, the last weekend of February. The Big Ten, Big 12, MAC and Pac-12 Conference tournaments have not been scheduled.

“We have two weekends on the table,” Dresser said. “We are slow-playing it to see what COVID looks like. We were worried if someone tested positive on the Sunday of the Big 12s, that they might be ineligible for the NCAAs two weeks later. But the CDC guidelines have lessened so it looks like it could be the traditional weekend, two weeks before the NCAAs.”

Before the pandemic had affected this winter’s college season, conference post-season tournaments were also scheduled to be held the first weekend of March and two weeks before the start of 2021 NCAA Championships, which are still scheduled to take place March 18-20 in St. Louis, Mo.

With the potential of the on-going COVID pandemic still affecting the postseason Championships, the NCAA has set up some procedures in its “2020-21 Qualifier Allocation Criteria.” (Click on http://www.ncaa.org/championships/division-i-wrestling to view the criteria.)

Among other things, the number of individual qualifiers could be reduced from the normal 330 wrestlers to 240. That would include the 70 conference champions, pre-allocated 130 qualifiers (down from 220) and 40 at-large selections after the conference tournaments take place.

The qualifying criteria pointed out that a wrestler with less than four matches would not be eligible for a pre-allocated spot for their conference, nor would they be considered for at-large selections. But a wrestler who wins the conference championship with less than 4 matches may retain that automatic qualifier spot.

Also, historical data from the past five years will be used to pre-allocate spots across eligible conferences. The NCAA has tried to determine qualifiers and seeds based more on results from the season; a task that could be even more difficult with fewer head-to-head match-ups in January and February.

“They are going to use historical data so win-loss records are not going to mean as much this year,” Dresser said. “Once they get to the NCAA tournament, they have some criteria in place. I would say they would look at historical data.”

Coaches must also figure out how to train their wrestlers in a season in which their only tournament will be the NCAA qualifier.

“I think everyone is going to be in the same boat,” Dresser said. “You are going to have to train your athletes different with tournament-like simulations to get your guys ready. The creative coaches will be the ones who figure it out.”

Dresser welcomes the start of this new unique season.

“It’s time to go,” said Dresser, who noted ISU would allow Hilton Coliseum to be 10 percent full in terms of fan attendance at first but hoped that number would go up. “We’ve tested twice a week since September and I think we had just one guy test positive. We are still very diligent with our precautions and make sure we stay together as a unit. There will probably be a few hiccups down the road.

“(The pandemic) is not over, but I think everyone could agree we are on the backside of this. I think by the time we get to the NCAAs, things could look a lot more normal. The NCAA has also slow-played how many tickets will even be available for St. Louis. I think they are hoping by mid-March we could go to full capacity or at least 75 percent.

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