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Area wrestling programs making adjustments

Like it has for so many other activities, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the ground rules for events for high school wrestling teams in the Mirror coverage area this winter.

With schools mandated by the state government not to begin or resume athletic practices until last Monday, and a 10-practice minimum required before any team could engage in competition, all winter sports seasons are starting much later this year.

In an attempt to limit congregation, most wrestling programs have opted to forego participating in regular-season tournaments and have opted for dual meet competition instead.

At most schools, coaches and wrestlers will be required to wear masks before, during and immediately after the competitions, and the number of spectators allowed at each event will be severely reduced or even eliminated so that buildings do not exceed the 10 percent capacity limit of people.

It’s a different world, for sure, but Penn Cambria coach Todd Niebauer is just glad that wrestling is being held at all.

“At this point, I’m just happy that we’re getting anything in,” Niebauer said. “We’re crossing our fingers. At this point, you can’t be upset with anything that’s going to happen (to benefit) the kids. We lost the spring season and the basketball state championships (in 2020), and we were fortunate to get the fall season in.

“You want to get everything in for the kids, they’re the ones who count,” Niebauer added. “This is their one shot, their one chance, and it’s definitely being challenged, that’s for sure.”

Penn Cambria’s big Panther Holiday Classic was moved from Mount Aloysius College to the Blair County Convention Center in mid-December, then ultimately cancelled. The Thomas Chevrolet Tournament at Bedford High School, a prime midseason event that has been held in late January for the past 32 years, was recently canceled, and Penn Cambria was to have been a part of that field also.

“You obviously enjoy the tournaments and I think that prepares you for the postseason, but our Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference teams are having dual meets on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays instead,” said Niebauer, whose Panthers are scheduled to open their dual meet season with a home match against Richland on Jan. 26. “It’s obviously better than nothing. Having nothing at all isn’t going to prepare us for the postseason.”

Altoona won’t start its season until January 16, when the Mountain Lions will be one of three teams to participate in a triangular meet at Juniata High School.

Altoona will host the Big Eight Wrestling Conference Meet on January 23 that includes Hollidaysburg, and the Mountain Lions are also scheduled to be part of the prestigious Powerade Tournament – one of the top high school tournaments in the country – on Jan. 29-31 at the Monroeville Convention Center.

The Powerade, which hosts nearly 50 teams from all over the country, was moved to the more spacious Monroeville Community Center from Canon-McMillan High School in Canonsburg to allow for social distancing.

“We’ll hopefully have the opportunity to compete against the best in Pennsylvania and the best in the country,” Altoona coach Joel Gilbert said of the Powerade. “I’m hoping that we can get two good tournaments and some dual meets in, and, unlike in past years, we’re going to be wrestling right up until our district meet this year.”

Altoona is helped by the fact that the Fieldhouse has a capacity of 2,000 people, so 200 will be allowed in the building for the matches. Gilbert said that there are plans for the entire gym to be open to allow for social distancing at the matches.

“The nice part is that the Fieldhouse is a big place,” Gilbert said. “We could spread people out all over the place if we have to do so.”

Glendale and its two-time PIAA Class 2A defending state champion Brock McMillen will be getting a very late start to their season.

Glendale has been adhering to a virtual learning format, and athletic practices aren’t permitted to begin there until Jan. 20. The Vikings’ first competition won’t be until Feb. 3, when Glendale hosts West Branch in a dual meet.

McMillen, a Division I signee with the University of Pittsburgh, has been involved in live wrestling three days a week at the Young Guns Wrestling Club locations in both Johnstown and Murrysville, so he doesn’t feel that he will be behind the curve when scholastic competition begins.

“It’s tough not to be able to compete at matches, because it’s obviously a different feel than just practices, but I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything,” McMillen said. “I feel like I’ve come out even better.”

The PIAA has left wearing masks during the actual competitions up to the discretion of each school district. Penn Cambria and Glendale wrestlers will be wearing masks during actual live competitions, while Altoona wrestlers, at this point, haven’t yet been ordered to do so, Gilbert said.

The postseason format will undergo drastic changes at both the Class 3A and Class 2A levels this season. There will be a district, regional and Super Regional tournament held in both classificationsleading up to the state tournament at Hershey’s Giant Center in March.

Eight wrestlers in each weight class will qualify for one-day state tournaments in both Class 2A on March 12 and Class 3A on March 13 at Hershey, meaning that any wrestler who survives the Super Regional competitions will earn a placewinner’s medal by advancing to states.

In Class 3A and Class 2A, there will be both a West and East Super Regional on March 6, with the top four finishers at each weight class in both Super Regionals moving on to comprise the eight-man brackets at states.

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