SANDWICH – It’s hard enough being a high school wrestler when everything is going your way. Between training sessions and maintaining your desired weight, the journey leading up to each match provides a grueling test of stamina and mental fitness.
With all of the hard work required to prepare, it can feel like a bit more than a gut punch when matches get canceled, a common occurrence as the sport that requires the most — and closest — contact between athletes tries to function during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve had three matches cancel, one that we had to say we couldn’t go because we had a COVID outbreak,” said Nauset wrestling coach Chris Gildehaus. “Wrestling is a unique sport that you need 10 days prior to be in the condition you need to be in to compete. You can’t just not practice and then go to a tournament.”
While nearly all high school sports have found a way to compete during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, no Massachusetts sport has been affected more than wrestling, which last winter was shifted from its normal placement in the coldest months to the spring, allowing some schools to compete outdoors.
Nauset — the Lower Cape’s only high school wrestling program — opted not to hold a wrestling season during the 2020-21 academic year. Now back in action, the Warriors are looking to rebuild under the guidance of Gildehaus, who took over the program in December 2019, and their senior captains, Nick Scola and Aidan Kinsella.
Returning to action wasn’t as simple as rolling out the mats, however; the program lost significant ground during its year away from competition.
“The cancellation last year really caused a problem for us,” Gildehaus admitted. “We have this huge gap that we don’t have any sophomores because there weren’t any freshmen last year. And then the kids that were sophomores and missed their junior seasons, they said, ‘Ah, forget it, I’m not coming back for my senior season.’”
The Warriors’ saving grace has been the team’s six freshmen, which make up the bulk of the nine-person team that includes a third senior, Owen Buhler, in addition to Scola and Kinsella.
Limited numbers have meant limited availability at practice, a reality that has forced most of Nauset’s wrestlers to train and work out with other grapplers in different weight classes.
“All of the lightweights I train with all got taken out because of COVID, so I’ve had to train with heavier guys,” explained Scola, an Orleans resident who wrestles in the 113-pound weight class. “Our 220 doesn’t have any other heavyweights to practice with. The only people who have partners are in the 145 to 160 range.”
The team’s 220 grappler, freshman Peter Silvernail, agreed with Scola that training can be tricky without the luxury of teammates at similar weights.
“It’s been different,” said Silvernail, a North Truro resident. “I’m seeing all of these other teams with up to 30 guys and they have four 220 guys working together in the corner and I’m over here doing a cradle with a guy that’s half my size trying to work it out.”
Even with the obstacles the team faces, Gildehaus and his wrestlers feel grateful to be having a season at all.
Those feelings of gratitude were especially present Saturday morning when the Warriors were among 11 teams that took part in the Cape Cod Invitational at Sandwich High School. For a sport that typically relies on similar larger-scale events that feature multiple teams competing at once, the invitational provided the rare sight of a packed and bustling gymnasium.
“It’s great,” Scola said. “The best part of my week is coming here. You sweat and practice sucks, but you do that and then this is almost like a vacation from practice.”
Unlike the freshmen, who will have more years of competition, Nauset’s seniors maintain a sense of urgency this winter. For Kinsella, a Brewster resident who wrestles at 145, there’s no time to feel bad about the obstacles the team is currently facing.
Instead, the senior co-captain who has been with the program since he was in eighth grade is determined to continue to set a strong example for the younger Warriors.
“All we can do is keep our heads down and grind,” Kinsella said. “Just show up to practice every day and work hard and just do our part. Even with such a small team, it kind of works to our advantage in a way because we have a group of guys who all want to be there so we’re all working hard and grinding.”
As for the future? Those around the program recognize there is work that needs to be done to keep Warriors wrestling alive.
“I hate to say it, but unless they can get some of their buddies and the juniors and sophomores to step up next year, Nauset will really struggle with numbers and recruiting,” Scola said.
“Maybe we could get a youth group or feeder program going,” offered Kinsella. “We’ve got the talent, we’ve got the coaches, we’ve got the heart, we just need numbers now.”
Email Brad Joyal at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @BradJoyal