Despite cancellations, Division I Wrestling keeps eyes focused on NCAAs

Updated: January 27, 2021

Photo: Iowa’s Michael Kemerer (left) and Michigan’s Logan Massa, who are ranked No. 1 and 2 at 174 pounds, were expected to be one of seven T0p-10 individual matchups between these schools this weekend. Unfortunately, the Wolverines were put on a 14-day pause by its school and will be unable to make the trip to Iowa City.

By Mike Finn

College wrestling fans have been looking for a few great match-ups in this shortened dual-only season and one of those moments was expected this Sunday, Jan. 31, when No. 2 Michigan as scheduled to travel to Iowa City, Iowa, to take on No. 1 Iowa.

Unfortunately, that will not happen after the Wolverine athletic department announced that all Michigan winter sports would begin a 14-day pause from activities; dating back to Jan. 23 positive test results of a COVID variant in “several individuals linked to the U-M athletic department.”

That dual, which could have featured seven Top-10 individual match-ups, could be rescheduled this winter. But it also became the latest event to be impacted by the pandemic that also delayed the start of the Division I season from last October to this January … will is scheduled to conclude with the March 18-20 NCAA Championships in St. Louis. Wrestling isn’t obviously the only college sport affected by the pandemic, but wrestling fans hope it does not impact the sport like it did with football when some post-season bowl games were cancelled.

Wrestling fans learned last fall that the pandemic would impact the sport when the Ivy League announced it was cancelling all winter sports seasons. That included a group of six wrestling programs which included highly-ranked Cornell and Princeton.

But since North Carolina saw its Jan. 1 season-opening dual with Campbell (as well as a Jan. 15 home dual against Virginia Tech) postponed because of COVID, the list of other notable programs affected by the infection has continued to grow.

This includes:

  • Penn State, which has yet to wrestle in 2021 after the Lions’ duals with Rutgers and Michigan State the past two weeks were postponed because of COVID, with one of the schools or the other. Penn State’s athletic department statement for the most recent Michigan State dual that got postponed read: “The universities mutually agreed to the postponement out of an abundance of caution surrounding the health and safety of the student-athletes, coaches and staff.”
  • Arizona State, which wrestled its first two matches, but was not able to compete in Ames, Iowa (for duals against Iowa State, Missouri and Northern Iowa) and Orem, Utah (in duals against Wyoming and Utah Valley) the past two weeks. And now this Saturday’s dual at Oregon State has also been postponed;
  • Lehigh, which has wrestled Pitt and Navy, had duals with Hofstra and Drexel cancelled;
  • Even undefeated Missouri, which actually wrestled nine duals between Jan. 3 and 23, will not wrestle against Rider this weekend in a double dual at Kent State.

“The COVID messages is that no matter how well you do it, no matter how you do it, you could get bit,” said Iowa coach Tom Brands on Jan. 26. The Hawkeyes will still face Illinois this Sunday in what’s left of the scheduled triangular meet with the Wolverines and Illini.

The Michigan athletes were upset by this decision and Myles Amine, top-ranked at 184, joined a group of Wolverine athletes in dealing with their frustration in the following statement:

“Based on the department’s testing policies, placing healthy students in quarantine is unnecessary and excessive. Placing the entirety of student-athletes in a mandated quarantine, instead of working it on a team by team basis, is unfair to the athletes who have followed protocols necessary to compete and have had no contact with the confirmed cases.”

There are a lot of uncertainties and questions to how the pandemic could affect future wrestling schedules over the next two months, including on if the pandemic could affect the post-season; one year after the pandemic cancelled the 2020 Nationals in Minneapolis.

“It’s a really polarizing topic,” Brands said. “We’re just going to keep training and competing when we can and when we’re set to go. And we’ll just keep doing the right thing.

“Whether we alter course or change the format of getting into the post-season quicker or hit the pause during the regular season, I don’t know if it really matters. I think you’re just going to have to plow through and maybe with a little, a little bit of luck, you get to the end, but we got to get to the end.”

There are only about three weekends left of dual competition and most schools will have at least two weeks training in their wrestling rooms before the start of the following seven NCAA-qualifying tournaments:

  • Feb. 26 – EIWA – TBA
  • Feb. 27-27 – MAC – Lawrenceville, N.J.
  • Feb. 28 – ACC – Raleigh, N.C.
  • Feb. 28 – Pac-12 – Corvallis, Ore.
  • Feb. 28 – SoCon – Boone, N.C.
  • March 6-7 – Big 12 – Tulsa, Okla.
  • March 6-7 – Big 10 – State College, Pa.

The NCAA has already built in procedures for those trying to qualify for the Nationals in the midst of the wrestling community dealing with COVID, where many wrestlers could have less than 10 matches before the national tournament.

For example, the NCAA could limit the field to 240 wrestlers (from the normal 330) and will use historical data over the past five years, rather than current seasonal head-to-head results — since there are fewer meetings between ranked wrestlers this season —  to help determine conference qualifier allocations and seeds.

Karen Langston

“This school year has been challenging, to say the least,” said Karen Langston, the chair of the NCAA Div. I Wrestling Committee.  “I’m disappointed and feel so bad for the athletes when these interruptions occur and they’re unable to participate in a sport they’re so passionate about, whether it’s wrestling, basketball or any sport.

“We have to keep in mind that these pauses are part of the process in place for the health and safety of the student-athletes, coaches and staff, in addition to the campus and local communities at large to limit the spread of COVID-19.  While we have seen interruptions for the programs you mentioned and others, the teams have been able to continue to compete and hold events safely.

“With the varied rules, protocols and health concerns across the country I think schools and conferences remain in the best position to manage how they continue to navigate the regular season and their conference championship events.

“The NCAA Division I Wrestling Committee remains focused on providing a safe and meaningful championship experience for the wrestlers in 2021.  The NCAA staff is working very diligently with the local organizing committee in St. Louis to implement the recommendations of the NCAA COVID-19 Medical Advisory Group to make that happen in March.  In terms of fans, discussions are ongoing with the local health authorities in St. Louis on any potential allowances in that regard.”

According to NCAA guidelines on qualifying criteria, a wrestler must compete in just four matches against Division I competition to qualify. A wrestler can also qualify for the NCAAs without competing in a qualifying tournament if that wrestler is sidelined because of COVID precautions that prevent him from competing in the conference tourney.

The 2021 NCAA Division I Championships will return to St. Louis for the ninth time on March 18-20.

At this point, there have been several former All-Americans like current top-ranked Daton Fix (133) of Oklahoma State, Ryan Deakin (157) of Northwestern and Myles Amine (184) of Michigan, who have not started wrestling for their college teams.

Will the limited varsity matches have any impact on wrestlers who need compete at an extremely high level on all three days (March 18-20) in St. Louis to earn All-American honors?

“I think they were ready (for Nationals) when they came out of the womb,” declared Brands, who hopes to see his alma mater win a 25th all-time NCAA team title. “That’s how you talk to guys. And that’s how you prepare them. And that’s how you get funny reactions where they can relax.”