NEWINGTON - When the New Britain and Newington wrestling teams met Wednesday evening, three weight classes were already accounted for before any wrestling was done.
Newington was without wrestlers for four different weight classes and had to forfeit two matches and New Britain also did not have wrestlers for two matches despite both teams being able to field a full team of wrestlers when healthy.
Covid has asserted a noticeable presence into the winter high school sports season, but causes particular problems for the individual sports because teams do not always have someone who can fill in for missing athletes. Wrestling was a sport hit harder than most others because there was no wrestling season in the 2020-21 school while the other winter sports had some semblances of seasons.
Resurrecting the wrestling program was a challenge for many schools because many student-athletes are not wrestling throughout the year, and without that season-to-season continuity it can be difficult to keep kids engaged with something they have not done in two years.
“Our most experienced wrestler has three years of experience and at least half our team is first-year wrestlers,” New Britain coach Jordan Jacquo said. “We had a good group of sophomores two years ago who really were hurt by not having last year’s season. It’s unfortunate because they show the kind of enthusiasm and the kind of energy that you want out of your team. To not be able to develop for a year has definitely been unfortunate.”
Similarly to the football season in the fall, which was the first football season in Connecticut since before the pandemic, experience is coming at a premium for most wrestling programs. While the circumstances are not what most coaches probably prefer, the benefit is that most programs are facing similar challenges, which makes the competition more even in some regards.
“It’s not a challenge because all teams are going through it so it kind of levels the playing field for a lot of programs,” Newington coach Tony Nguyen said. “We have a lot of wrestlers who are wrestling for the first time, but every team deals with that. I don’t have any different challenges than other coaches. We actually had the biggest turnout we’ve ever had in the program this year because everyone was hungry to have sports.”
With the lineup constantly changing and rarely being complete, it’s difficult for some coaches to focus on their team score at a match because they might be outnumbered by the opposing team and take on too many forfeits to compete. Newington squeaked out a one-point win over New Britain on Wednesday for the Nor’easters’ first team win of the season while the Hurricanes are still in search of theirs.
“It’s been a rollercoaster [because] you have a couple of good days of practice followed by bad news of people needing to be out,” Jacquo said. “It’s tough to fill a lineup, which makes it tough to actually compete for real, full meets, it’s more about the individual wrestlers. In each match I want the individual to come out and do what they can do.”
The inconsistent scheduling is especially difficult for the wrestlers, highlighted by the newer members who have the most to learn. New Britain sophomore Jeriel Cesareo earned his first varsity win Wednesday against Newington and will look to take steps forward from there, but he said one of his greatest challenges is remembering what he worked on in practice when it matters most.
“It’s hard to remember moves,” Cesareo said. “When you’re in a match, you’re not really thinking unless you have the time or the chance. If they’re not doing a move on you and you have a chance to think about it, you can do what you did in practice.”
Navigating high school sports amid covid has made everyone involved more grateful for every opportunity they get to participate in the activities they enjoy. With so few certainties as the season progresses, every day not lost becomes an important memory.
“We are just thankful for all the times that we have with the kids and thankful that the kids continuously come back to us and work hard,” Nguyen said. “We’re just playing it by ear and doing our best.”
Matt Hornick can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or email@example.com.