When it comes to the atmosphere in high school sports, few events can match the state wrestling tournament.
Traditionally held at the Jerome Schottenstein Center in Columbus, the tournament is three days of loud, organized chaos, boosted by the soundtrack of cheers from the thousands of spectators from across Ohio who attend.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the tournament was canceled last March. Determined to host it while still adhering as closely as possible to pandemic protocols, the Ohio High School Athletic Association has decided to tweak the format.
During its January Board of Directors meeting, it was decided that the event, in which 672 wrestlers from hundreds of different schools compete across three divisions, would be moved away from the large arena and broken up into multiple parts.
Currently, the OHSAA is still in search of three high schools, preferably in Central Ohio due to travel considerations, to each host a division. Additionally, the tournament will include split sessions, with seven weight classes competing per session, with a break in between.
Per COVID protocols, there will be limits on how many spectators can attend. When it comes to tournament locations, coaches and wrestlers alike had mixed opinions on where the state’s biggest tournament of the year would be housed.
“At the start of the season I assumed that we would not be allowed back at the Schott,” Lutheran West coach Dave Ressler said. “This was expected and not a surprise. My worry is that they have not found a location in Central Ohio for Division III, and have opened up the search to other regions of the state. My fear is that we are going to end up in southern Ohio and have a really long trip and overnight stays.”
Avon coach Jeremy Johnson, who had two state qualifiers last year that were unable to finish their season in Columbus, was just happy that a tournament is still likely to take place.
“I’m happy to see us being productive and having a plan in place for the state tournament,” he said. “Fingers crossed we have this opportunity for these kids. My kids and coaching staff are indifferent about the location. Obviously, the Schott is the best place to host it and makes it a very special experience for all...I think I speak for all and say we’re just grateful for the opportunity for the kids.”
Fairview 160-pounder Declan Jewitt was another athlete that qualified for state last year but was unable to make the trip once the pandemic shut down sports. He’s been channeling that disappointment into his senior season as he attempts to qualify again, but admitted he was looking forward to the chance to be a part of the atmosphere inside the arena.
“It hurt last year,” Jewitt said. “I still remember getting a text from my coach (that the tournament was canceled). It was upsetting but it only makes me want to work harder and make it there again and place...It’s always been a dream to run out of the tunnel (at the Schottenstein Center) since watching it there my freshman and sophomore year. I wanted to be able to do that, but I hope they have something cool for us.”
Warriors coach Darrin Laughlin was sad for the athletes who won’t get a chance to take part in such a unique environment.
“It’s just very inconvenient, is the easiest way to say it, I guess,” he said. “I always liked being there. I thought it was a special experience, and I think they’re kind of robbing the kids of that, just in that way. We’ll deal with what we’ve got to deal with. If I get four guys down to Columbus, I’ll deal with going to a high school instead of going to the Schott, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Wrestling isn’t alone in not currently having a state tournament host site in place. The OHSAA is still looking for venues to host the final fours for hockey and boys and girls basketball.
State swimming will still take place at the C.T. Branin Natatorium in Canton, bowling will emanate from Wayne Webb’s Columbus Bowl and gymnastics will continue to be hosted by Hilliard Bradley High School in Columbus.
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