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Maine high school wrestlers face opponents on and off the mat this year

For the first time since 2019, wrestlers will compete this winter amid a decrease in student-athletes, teams, and official participation.

MAINE, USA — It was a sloppy period for high school wrestling teams around Maine last weekend since it was the first time student-athletes got on a mat and competed against other schools since 2019.

“Their conditioning isn’t quite where it needs to be," Noble High School Head Coach Kevin Gray said. “We’re just excited to be able to be on the mat right now.”

Despite missing all of last year, Gray said about 35 students came out to his first wrestling practice last month. One challenge for Gray and all coaches this season will be something tackle football coaches dealt with this fall: What are my players' strengths?

Gray said many of his senior athletes were sophomores the last time they wrestled, and their bodies have grown and placed them in higher weight classes. They are also leaders on the team.

“A lot of them didn’t compete at the varsity level their sophomore year so now they’re kind of thrown into that leadership role," Gray said.

While Noble and other schools will have plenty of students grappling on the mat this year, a lot of teams will be short team members or not compete altogether. 

“This will be the first time since we started the program that we will not field a team at Penobscot Valley High School," athletic director Gerald Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson is also chairman of the Maine Principals' Association's wrestling committee. He said the number of teams competing this year is down around the state, and they have only about 13 qualified officials, fewer than years past.

Matt Hanley has coached for decades, but this season will be a good test for the veteran. With current sophomores on his team at Gardiner Area High School having no high school experience, he said he essentially has two freshman classes on the roster.

His plan during most seasons is to focus on getting his team ready to go before the regional meet, and that strategy will not change this year.

“So we got time. So, hopefully by then, and I can see it taking that long, to get the kids back to where their moves are hitting good and crisp," Hanley added.

Another issue facing the sport is a lack of participation at the middle school level, which is essentially a feeder system to the high school ranks. Like high school, junior high programs were paused last year, and they won't start this winter until February.

“It depends on what happens with [COVID], whether or not we can get those programs off the ground. Like I haven’t had one in two years. I don’t know if there’s any interest left," Hutchinson said.

“We hope that [the junior high] season goes ahead, so we can start recruiting at that level, and, like I said, rebuilding," Hanley added.

The road to the state championship meet in February begins Friday afternoon when the first countable meets can begin around Maine. 

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