In his 47 years of coaching Yelm wrestling, Gaylord Strand has seen his fair share of challenges leading a premiere, public-school wrestling program.
But this year might just take the cake.
As one of the top 3A wrestling programs in the state, the Tornados’ matroom would normally be jam-packed with eager, attentive grapplers during an average wrestling season. But the COVID-19 pandemic, and requirements brought down by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), has brought with it a blow to the program.
A slim 20 boys are on the bracket so far this year to compete for Yelm, a substantial fraction of the average 60-plus group that would usually turnout. At least four state placers have opted out of the season due to strict mask and testing requirements, Strand said, which is understandable with no state culminating event this spring season.
But Yelm’s woes aren’t unique. Rainier coaches also report turnout is low and competition might be sparse.
“It’s not just our school, it’s happening all over the state. The numbers are way down,” Strand told the Nisqually Valley News during a recent practice.
WIAA has deemed both basketball and wrestling a “high-contact sport,” meaning that regular competition can only begin in counties that are in Phase 3 or higher of the state’s Roadmap to Recovery plan.
This year, unvaccinated high school wrestlers are required to be tested against COVID-19 twice a week and face masks must be worn at all times, even when wrestling. If Thurston County falls back into Phase 2, which is possible, competition could be moved outdoors.
Masks will also be treated, according to WIAA, as “special equipment.” Referees will be authorized to pause matches, in most cases, when a mask becomes misplaced in order for the athlete to correct it.
Wrestling practice started April 26 for many schools. Athletes will have a six-week season to work with. An end date is scheduled for June 12, according to WIAA.
Glancing at the weight class board, the number of athletes listed left Strand at a loss for words. In a non-COVID-19 year, Yelm would have five or six boys competing for the top spot in their class, but today the Tornados haven’t been able to fill even their medium-weight classes. This year’s drought may force them to get creative when competing.
“Even when we had 300 kids in the high school, and we were a single-A school, I’d have like 32 kids turn out,” he said. “The focus is on getting the kids basics this year, try and get everybody matches, because it’s going to be hard to find matches for everybody if other schools don’t have their numbers. (And) making this season as fun as they can for the kids.”
Gage Nelson returns this year after a rousing second-place finish in the 126-pound class at the 2020 Mat Classic state tournament. Jeffery Myers and Slade Edwards, two wrestlers who’ve also been scrappy on the big mat for Yelm, also return.
The Tornados had a phenomenal showing in 2020, overall as a team, finishing third overall with 98 points.
Yelm should continue to fare well against other South Sound Conference competition this shortened season, too, with only Thurston County 3A teams like River Ridge, Timberline, North Thurston and Capital, on the Tornados’ schedule.
The Lady Tornados were holding steady with about 18 girls registered last week, said head coach Amy Earley.
Jordyn Rabalais, Dasha Burnett and Camryn Erickson were the three sole girls that competed for Yelm at the 2020 Mat Classic, and they’ll be returning this season.
“A lot of the girls programs in the state have been decimated, and so I’m kind of optimistic that we still have our depth and can make a run at it next year with the depth that we have. I’m sad for others, but I’m happy for us because we’ve got that family attitude. … It’s a great group of girls,” Earley said, noting that all her girls that could return did.
Keeping face masks adjusted during live wrestling has been a challenge, Earley said, but they’re thankful to even have a season.
She said eyes this season will definitely be on freshman Madisyn Erickson, a Yelm Middle School product who’s shown an adept speed on the mat and who’s been wrestling since she was 5 years old.
“I feel like this season is just getting us ready for the next season,” Erickson said, noting that she has a hefty goal this season to go undefeated in the 115-pound bracket.
At Rainier, head coach Chris Holterman said he’ll have at least 16 wrestlers on the mat this year. While they’re planning to be a little heavier this year, Holterman said they’ll likely have some holes in their weight classes.
“We’re young. Almost everyone’s a freshman or sophomore, so we’re definitely young and not a lot of experience. Even some of the older kids that have wrestled have only wrestled for a year,” Holterman said. “It’s good for the future. Not for right now.”
Holterman said last week the Mountaineers also had four kids out on COVID-19 protocol, either having been tested for the virus or quarantining. The goal remains focused on getting his athletes as much time on the mat as they possibly can.
The team does return a modest group of sophomores in Levi Swann, Collin Davis and Adrian Hambly. Swann and Davis both recorded minutes at the 2020 Mat Classic, and the boys team placed 12th overall.
On the girls side, head coach Kelli Garner said they’ll have three girls wrestling this year.
“My goal this year is to just get out there and have some sort of a season, have some fun. I would love to see them gain some skills so that we go into next year a little better off,” Garner said.