When it comes to high school sports, there’s nothing quite like the environment of a high school wrestling tournament.

Spectators often have the chance to watch four-to-eight mats at one time. With a dozen or two dozen teams competing, action rarely stops. As soon as one match is done, the next two participants are being ushered onto the mat for the next one.

When it’s all said and done, a wrestler or spectator can be at a facility for at least 10 hours if they are there from start to finish, with most of that time filled with live wrestling.

There won’t be any wrestling competitions like that during the regular season this winter though. For the most part, the Virginia High School League is limiting competitions to duals and tri-events.

Reductions in the number of teams at wrestling competitions is just one of the many things that athletes — as well as the limited number of fans that might be allowed to attend events — are going to have to get used to if high school athletics officially returns in December from a nearly eight-month hiatus.

On Friday afternoon, Gov. Ralph Northam said in a news release that the state’s gathering ban will be reduced from 250 to 25. According to VHSL director of communications director Mike McCall, that directive as of now will not prevent VHSL schools from playing, but it will limit spectator capacity. McCall said the VHSL will discuss the matter over the weekend and will have a response to Northam’s directive on Monday.

On Oct. 30, the VHSL issued a 39-page document outlining its guidelines for returning to participation, with 28 pages related to health procedures for athletics and activities. The document emphasizes social distancing; cleaning and disinfecting; mask protocols (athletes have to wear masks whenever they are not competing); and how to run activities safely for individual sports and activities.

Basketball practice is set to begin Dec. 7, with the rest of the winter sports following a week later on Dec. 14. The first competition date for basketball is Dec. 21.

There are a number of precautions designed to keep people healthy inside of athletic facilities, but just as important are the actions people take on their own time. For example, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s are usually times that families and friends congregate for large celebrations, but people will need to make wise choices this year to help the winter season run as smoothly as possible.

“[COVID-19] numbers across the state, across the country, are climbing again,” said Millbrook coordinator of student activities Scott Mankins in a phone interview on Wednesday. “The family should always come first. Especially those times of year, those are traditional times for families to gather, but people have to realize there could be consequences. Anytime there’s an opportunity for human error, people have to understand that piece of it. This is going to be an opportunity, a big opportunity, for human error.”

People will also have to be understanding that it will take hard work and cooperation to conduct high school sports.

“Another challenge is going to be mindset,” Mankins said. “When the spring sports season was taken away, the kids said, ‘Give us an opportunity to play again.’ And the parents were telling us, ‘Give the kids an opportunity to play again, whatever you have to do.’ Now that we’re getting closer to that, everybody’s wanting it done a certain way, when to truly make this happen, the focus needs to be on allowing the kids the opportunity to play, understanding that it may not be what’s done in a typical year.”

Though Northam gave the green light for the VHSL to conduct play on Oct. 30, each of the state’s school divisions will make the final decision to participate. Richmond Public Schools has already opted out of playing winter sports. Buckingham County — which competes in Region 2B with Clarke County — also has opted out.

James Wood CSA Craig Woshner has stated since the spring that winter sports would be of significant concern due to COVID-19. They take place indoors, so distancing is more difficult and diseases are more likely to spread, and wrestling and basketball are two of the highest-risk sports because of the significant amount of contact involved with them.

“[Medical experts predicted] this spike in cases was coming, short of having a vaccine, which pretty much was known that that wasn’t going to happen before the end of the year,” said Woshner in a phone interview on Tuesday. “We knew the challenges then about bringing sports inside to begin with, and then trying to contest what we feel are two of the most high-risk sports possible at that end with basketball and wrestling ... honestly, personally, I find it difficult that we’re going to try and pull this off with the COVID situation where it is right now.”

Woshner said FCPS athletic directors, trainers and central office members started working on options for how to return to play before the VHSL released its guidelines, dealing with things such as spectators (local officials will determine how many spectators will attend, if they can attend at all) and transportation (FCPS schools, for example, were limiting the number of people to 27 on a bus prior to Northam’s announcement on Friday). Woshner notes that the VHSL guidelines aren’t one size fits all, as each school can take more specific measures.

Woshner says 27 on a bus isn’t a problem for trips to local schools, because James Wood can use a sort of shuttle service — a bus can take a JV team to Millbrook, then drive back to James Wood and pick up the varsity team. But for trips to Fauquier County and Culpeper County — whose schools make up half of the Class 4 Northwestern District — they might have to use two buses and perhaps use cars for certain personnel like coaches.

The VHSL has issued a series of webinars on vhsl.com related to its return to participation guidelines, and in one associate director Tom Dolan noted that wrestling will get the most scrutiny.

Wrestlers will have to get used to the fact that it won’t be just competition days where there will be fewer people around them. Wrestling rooms are known for being on the small side, and the VHSL is advising that teams should only have two people in a 144-by-225-foot space.

Handley coach Troy Mezzatesta said in a phone interview on Monday that Handley’s wrestling room is about 1,200 square feet, so he’ll be shifting his wrestlers around to various places. (Mankins said Millbrook’s wrestling room can have 15 people at one time, including coaches.)

Mezzatesta said Handley has discussed having one group train in the wrestling room and one group train in part of the auxiliary gym, and then they could have people in the weight room while others are doing work outdoors as part of a rotation. Mezzatesta said wrestlers would be grouped by weight class as far as lifting and training together. Mezzatesta said Handley is also considering having wrestlers come in at different times, with a group possible coming in before school.

“You have to look at new approaches,” Mezzatesta said.

Quad competitions will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but many schools will most likely not even bother with those. James Wood and Millbrook, for example, will not host any wrestling quads.

Mezzatesta said Handley was thinking about holding its Judges Invitational with eight teams — using Daniel Morgan Middle School as a second location for the tournament — before the VHSL issued its guidelines. He accepts what the VHSL is doing.

“Whatever the guidelines say, is kind of what we have to go with, so there’s no use in ho-humming and feeling slighted by it,” Mezzatesta said. “Clearly there are some COVID cases on the rise, so we’ve got to mind [COVID] and be careful.”

Woshner said he was never comfortable with the idea of hosting quads due to the number of people those would bring, and the sanitation involved. But if there’s only one team match going on at a time, you can put two mats out. You start off on one mat, then have the second match on the second mat so you can sanitize the mat that just had a match on it. The third match would head back to the first mat so the second mat can be sanitized. That process would be used until the overall match is over.

By having three or fewer varsity teams at James Wood on a given night, that will also create more opportunities for JV wrestlers.

“One of my concerns about all our sports is that we’re losing kids in their early development,” Woshner said. “We don’t want to lose those younger kids. If they’re not going to wrestle any matches, then they’re probably not going to bother coming out for the team to begin with.”

Wrestling is hardly the only sport that will have to be creative with practices and competitions.

For example, Woshner said there are restrictions in place at Jim Barnett Park for swimming in which only 12 people can be in the water at the time and 10 people on deck. (James Wood, Handley, Millbrook and Sherando all use Jim Barnett Park for swimming.) Given that each school will likely have at least 30 swimmers, schools may have to split days in which athletes practice. At meets, swimmers will have to stay in the War Memorial building gym while they wait to compete.

Woshner notes that the indoor track calendar on milestat.com only has outdoor meets or meets for the new facility in Virginia Beach, and those meets in Virginia Beach are club meets because they’re not sanctioned by the VHSL.

As far as the actual wrestling, the VHSL has made some changes that may or may not have much of an effect.

One is the time of each match. Standard high school wrestling has three two-minute matches, but now the first period will be limited to one minute as a way to limit exposure.

“When you have two guys wrestling, what’s really the difference between five minutes and six minutes?” Woshner said. “They’re still going to be rolling around and potentially exposing each other. You can’t wear masks when you’re wrestling. I understand [the VHSL] tried to do what they could to at least reduce the risk a little bit, but it really doesn’t do a whole lot. [Exposure to possible illness is] still a big concern.”

Handshakes are being eliminated across the board in all sports. It’s an act that a lot of people used to do without thinking about in everyday life. Other acts that might have been done out of habit before are also going by the wayside, like baseball and softball players licking their fingers, putting their hands to their mouths or blowing on their hands; and tennis doubles partners whispering strategy to each other.

Woshner said it will be difficult not to practice those familiar habits. Coaches will also be tasked with balancing strategizing to succeed at a competition and making sure their athletes are following health guidelines.

In terms of actual style of play, the sport of soccer is facing one of the biggest changes.

On all indirect and direct free kicks, teams that are looking to set up a wall to defend them will have to keep their players at least three feet apart.

“My first thought is to stagger the line instead of having a flat line, because you can do that and still have [three feet of] distance, but still cover the same gaps,” Millbrook boys’ soccer coach Keith Kilmer said on Wednesday. “But if they don’t allow you to do that, then it’s going to be a significant turning point in the game. Because anytime anyone’s near your goal, it’s an excellent scoring opportunity. You basically have a free shot on goal.”

Kilmer notes that football players who are stationed on the line have no restrictions on spacing.

“Football linemen could be shoulder-to-shoulder across from other football players who are shoulder-to-shoulder, but we can’t do shoulder-to-shoulder just standing there?” Kilmer said.

Kilmer said he thinks a bigger issue will be corner kicks, where a lot of players in the penalty box and many of them are jostling for position in front of the goal. Kilmer notes if a team needs a goal to tie in the final couple of minutes, there could be 21 players in the box.

As large as the VHSL’s return to participation document was, Woshner said schools are still waiting on more guidelines from the VHSL. How game balls are sanitized, for instance.

“We have to be careful about that, because the manufacturers haven’t provided any guidance on how you can safely sanitize those balls,” Woshner said. “You can’t just take a standard sanitizing wipe with all that fluid on it and wipe the ball down. Because that leather ball — think about baseball or softball or basketball — it’s going to absorb all that moisture into the ball. It’s going to ruin the ball, No. 1, and it’s also going to add weight to the ball, too. Nor can you just spray it with some kind of solution.

“Again, I understand [the VHSL] is trying to do what they can to show that we’re making the effort to minimize risk. But is that going to make the difference? I doubt it.”

Mankins noted that schools will be traveling to road contests with their own balls this year. For example, in baseball and softball, teams will pitch and be on defense with their own balls.

Overall, Woshner and Mankins like the work their athletic departments have done to keep everyone safe through offseason workouts, and the measures they’ve taken to prepare for the actual seasons. They’ll have to continue to be diligent.

“When you’re in the middle of an athletic contest, things are a little bit different,” Woshner said. “It’s going to definitely be a challenge.”

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at

rniedzwiecki@winchesterstar.com

Follow on Twitter @WinStarSports1

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