BILLINGS — Better late than never.
While a year ago high school wrestlers would have been competing at this time, practice began across the state Monday and for many of those competing they hope to qualify for the state tournament, which is normally held in mid-February at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark.
This year, however, the start of the season and state tournament dates have been pushed back because of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.
The state tournament weekend is now scheduled for March 5-6, 2021, and the 32nd version of the all-class tournament isn’t on the calendar because all three classes (AA, A and B-C) will hold their own tournament at three separate locations in a social distancing effort due to the virus.
The locations for the three separate state tourneys will be announced later, according to Montana High School Association associate director Brian Michelotti, who also oversees wrestling for the organization.
It will be the first time since the 2011 there won’t be an all-class format. In 2011, the AA tourney was in Great Falls, the A tourney in Butte and the B-C tourney in Hamilton because the Metra was damaged during the Father’s Day Tornado.
This year is also the first for girls wrestling as a sanctioned MHSA sport and a girls-only state tourney was to be held during the two-day state meet at Metra. Now, the girls tourney date and location are to be determined.
“We are working hard to get the season kicked off,” Michelotti told The Billings Gazette and 406mtsports.com. “We’ve worked with our schools at all three classes of wrestlers to put a season in place that is a safe season for the sport in Montana.”
For boys, divisionals for all classes are set for Feb. 26-27 with sites to be announced. Michelotti said the MHSA is “working right now with all three classes to determine postseason formats.”
Among many safety protocols considered for postseason events are possibly not having all the wrestlers in the gym at the same time, and limits to attendance and the number of other personnel allowed in the competition area.
“There’s a lot of things we are discussing and each classification is having discussions,” Michelotti said. “We are working with each classification and having meetings to make the determination.”
According to the MHSA Wrestling Requirements/Considerations for the year, “for wrestling, the postseason formats (and possibly dates) will be evaluated according to the conditions at the time.” The guidelines also say that postseason “sites will be determined according to availability and local health department’s approval.”
During a pandemic when most of the general public is wearing a mask at public places to avoid COVID-19, and many are washing their hands or using hand sanitizer often, having an all-class state meet with up to 624 boys wrestlers, and the addition of and undetermined number of girls wrestlers, plus tourney workers, officials, and spectators, wasn’t feasible.
“It’s just not a possibility to have everyone in that facility,” Michelotti said.
As for the girls state tournament, all girls who compete in the regular season will qualify and there will be no divisional tournaments. In the regular season, girls will compete against boys and girls.
When wrestlers are certified Jan. 20, Michelotti said the MHSA will know more about the number of girls competing and a format for the state tournament. When a wrestler is certified, Michelotti said that process determines the lowest weight they can compete in during the season.
From early accounts, Michelotti said he’s heard positive feedback about the number of girls participating.
“I don’t have the specifics on it, but we are hearing there is a good amount of girls competing,” he said.
The regular season begins Jan. 2.
Absent from the schedule this year will be events such as the Mining City Duals, the Great Falls CMR Holiday Classic, the Cowboy in Miles City and the Jug Beck Rocky Mountain Classic in Missoula. Tournaments aren’t allowed during the season to help in social distancing efforts.
Michelotti said wrestlers can still weigh in at 18 events but are limited to a maximum of two matches per day (wrestlers must wear a clean singlet for the second match). Competitions will be in a dual format and teams can only have two duals per day.
According to the guidelines, only two squads will be allowed to compete in the same gym at the same time and there must be time to clean and sanitize when a new team enters the facility.
Schools with small teams that are unable to dual may participate in a mixer with a maximum of 40 participants if allowed by local jurisdictions.
Wrestlers can only compete in two matches per mixer. They must wear masks when they aren’t competing and coaches are to wear them at all times.
Another MHSA guideline involves traveling outside the state to compete or having out-of-state teams wrestle in Montana. This isn't allowed unless it’s in a dual format and approved by MHSA executive director Mark Beckman. It is also noted in the guidelines that attendance is dependent on local jurisdictions.
Some of the notable guidelines include: practices should be conducted in “pods” or “bubbles” of wrestlers with the same athletes working out together; a flu vaccination is encouraged for wrestlers, coaches and officials; wash and/or sanitize hands often; everyone should have their own personal beverage containers; equipment sharing is prohibited; wrestlers should have COVID-19 testing as part of their pre-participation physical; and temperature checks of the wrestlers before weigh-ins.
“We are working hard to have a good regular season and postseason,” Michelotti said. “Hopefully we can crown a state champion in all three classifications.”