High School Wrestlers, Coaches Looking Forward To Season That Almost Wasn’t

Will Zaffuto on the mat in 2020.

At last year’s Suffolk County Division I wrestling tournament, a trio of Westhampton Beach juniors each fell just one win short of earning All-County honors. A win in what’s known as “the blood round” secures a spot on the podium, where the top six wrestlers in each weight class are recognized and awarded a medal at the end of the tournament.

It’s disappointing to lose in that round, but for Will Zaffuto, Grant Skala, and Liam McIntyre, there was always next year.

Until there wasn’t.

Since the coronavirus descended and caused the shutdown of schools nearly a year ago, that trio of wrestlers has been wondering if last season’s blood round defeat would end up being the final time they competed on a varsity wrestling mat. As the likelihood of competing in Hurricane singlet again moved from uncertain to unlikely, Zaffuto held on to the painful memory of his season-ending loss to Ward Melville’s Matthew Cracciola. He thought about it when he went for solo runs; when he worked out at home; when he texted his friends, Skala and McIntyre, and other members of the wrestling team, checking in on them, letting them know what workouts he was doing, trying his best to stay in shape and keep them motivated to do the same, so they’d be ready if and when they had a chance to compete again, even if the odds of doing seemed slim, at best.

When word came down from Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone recently that high-risk sports would be permitted to have a season, Zaffuto and his Hurricanes teammates were excited, and ready. They were set to begin practice this week, with Westhampton Beach head coaches Connor Miller and Andrew Petroulias opening the doors to the Hurricanes wrestling room, in the basement of the high school, for the first time in nearly a year.

“I’m really excited,” Zaffuto said earlier this week. “I was a bit nervous that we weren’t going to have a season. When I heard the news, I was really fired up and texted all the guys. I told them to get ready, because we have a chance to do really special things in the short time we have. We’re really happy to be competing.”

Thirty miles to the east, however, it’s a different story. Members of the East Hampton wrestling team — coached by Westhampton Beach alum Ethan Mitchell — will not have the same opportunity for redemption. Although Bellone approved high-risk sports in the county, members of the school’s athletic committee, which includes Board of Education members and the school’s chief medical officer, decided against allowing wrestling, feeling it posed too much of a virus transmission risk. Varsity boys and girls basketball, which holds the same “high-risk” designation as wrestling, will be allowed to proceed at East Hampton.

In making that choice, East Hampton became one of only a small handful of schools across Long Island that will allow basketball but not wrestling.

The athletic committee did give approval to allow the wrestling team to meet and practice together for an intramural program. That will allow them to go in the wrestling room and spar with each other, but will of course prohibit them from taking part in any interscholastic competition.

East Hampton Athletic Director Joe Vasile-Cozzo declined to comment about whether he agreed with the decision, but said he’s happy that sports can exist in whatever form is approved.

“I have to follow the direction of the committee and the advice I get from medical professionals,” he said. “I’m thrilled that we are having sports again, and that wrestling can do intramurals.”

Mitchell declined to comment on the matter as well. East Hampton typically runs a shared sports program for wrestling, inviting student-athletes from Pierson High School, but Pierson made the controversial choice to ban high-risk sports for the time being.

Both Southampton and Hampton Bays will run their varsity wrestling programs this season. Mike Lloyd returns to his post as the varsity head coach at Hampton Bays, while Khomari Moses will move into the head coaching role at Southampton, stepping up from his assistant post to replace longtime head coach Lester Ware, who took a leave of absence for this season.

When Lloyd, Moses, and Miller and Petroulias invite their wrestlers back into their rooms this week, things will look different, with plenty of new protocols to follow, and little time to adjust for a season that will last for just a month. Teams were supposed to start practicing on February 1, but the snowstorm set them back two days, as practice was also cancelled on February 2. Teams must get in 10 days of practice before a match, meaning the first action of the season will likely be pushed back one day, to February 13. (Teams have been given clearance to practice every day of the week). Once matches do start, the season will be what Miller describes as “a full sprint” for the duration. The weigh-in process has also been streamlined, in an attempt to cut down as much as possible on gatherings and close contact. Typically, wrestlers would weigh in on the morning of a match and then weigh in once more in the afternoon at the school hosting the competition. Now, there will only be morning weigh-ins. Whatever weight wrestlers come in at for their first match will be the lowest weight they can compete at all season.

On the surface, wrestling might seem like the highest of high risk sports when it comes to COVID transmission, but in many ways, wrestlers, wrestling coaches, and officials are better equipped than most to handle the extra safety requirements. Taking extra precautions to prevent the spread of germs is baked into wrestling culture, with spray bottles of disinfectant always at the ready to wipe the mat clean of body fluids. Cohorting wrestlers into small groups of two or three at practice is also easy and, to a certain extent, has always been done — wrestlers only spar with and compete against those within their weight range, and there are never more than two wrestlers on the mat at a competition. Miller said he and Petroulias plan to tighten those restrictions even more, assigning one partner and keeping them together on bus rides as well. When it comes to competitions, wrestlers will be asked to wear masks “until it’s no longer tolerable,” which is somewhat of a gray area when it comes to enforcement, but Miller said he’s going to encourage his athletes to mask up as often as possible.

The coaches and athletes are more than willing to follow all the new rules and guidelines, because they’re thrilled they were given the chance to get out there again.

“I was pretty shocked; it didn’t seem like something that was going to come to fruition,” Miller said.

For wrestlers like Zaffuto, Skala and McIntyre, another shot at getting on that top-six podium at counties remains off the table. There will not be a county individual tournament this year, or individual league championships. But the wrestling coaches are hoping to host a postseason dual-meet championship.

Regardless of how it plays out, Miller said he hopes that in addition to showing their skills against other wrestlers and teams in the county, his squad and others can prove they can compete safely, in a sport that many believe is the least safe of all.

“It’s not the season they were expecting to have this year, but it’s the best we can do with what we have,” Miller said. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work from everybody, kids, coaches, and administrators around the county. It’s only going to take a few kids going to a party here or there and then we could have an outbreak and not be able to finish the season. So we have to try and stay as much in a little bit of a bubble as we can to make this a success. And it will also be a big factor in whether we have sports next season, too. If this is unsuccessful, it will be a challenge to do sports in the fall. I hope we can be the first season to be successful, and then be successful with the next season as well.”

In the individual quest for success, Zaffuto says he and his teammates, Skala and McIntyre, will continue to think about the way their last season ended as motivation to keep pushing forward.

“I think about that loss every day,” he said. “And even though I won’t be able to wrestle that kid again, I will take that chip on my shoulder to every match I go into.”