He was busy packing his suitcase last Thursday knowing that this year’s state wrestling tournament wouldn’t be the same.
Walking through the tunnel to the deafening crowds of 12,000 to 15,000 spectators to take to the mats at Ohio State University’s Schottenstein Center in Columbus had already been stripped from Kenston 145-pound senior Nick Nastasi, as well as the rest of the 672 state qualifiers across three divisions.
Two days earlier, last week Tuesday, Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine made the directive to limit all sporting events to athletes, parents and others essential to the game or competition.
In compliance, Ohio High School Athletic Association Executive Director Jerry Snodgrass announced later that evening that state tournament spectators for wrestling, hockey and basketball would be limited to four family members per qualifying athlete and two family members for coaches.
“You know, that (stunk) just because one of the big perks of making it down to the state tournament is just all of the hype that comes along with it, all the energy that’s in the ‘Schott’ when you walk out of that tunnel that leads to all of the fans,” Nastasi said. “That’s a big part of it for me, and it’s a big part of why everyone wants to go down to the state tournament.
“But even after they announced there’d only be four guests per wrestler, I wasn’t too upset about that. Yeah, it (stunk), because I had a lot of friends that were all going to come down to watch me and stuff, but I was happy to still be able to wrestle, because I knew what was going on (with COVID-19).”
Nastasi had earned the right to return to the big dance for the first time since he was a 106-pound freshman in 2017, after injuries sidelined him during the 2018 and 2019 postseasons.
Nastasi and his fellow grapplers from throughout Ohio wouldn’t have the usual crowds cheering them on in Columbus, but at least they’d still get the final say on the mats – or so they thought.
So, there Nastasi was two days later, packing up and getting ready for the drive down Interstate 71 to Columbus.
“I actually was packing my suitcase, and my oldest brother had just called and told me that he saw something on Twitter a minute ago,” he said. “And I didn’t believe him and hung the phone up on him and went straight to Twitter, and that’s when I saw it. And then I called my coach, and I was quite upset, for sure.”
At 12:45 p.m. last Thursday, OHSAA administrators sent out release announcing that all remaining winter tournament contests were indefinitely postponed due to the growing situation with COVID-19.
The announcement left no timetable to determine the possible rescheduling of the tournaments.
“We will use this time to work with the appropriate state authorities and health experts to determine our next steps moving forward,” Snodgrass said. “We realize this is disappointing for our participants and their fans, but the overall health and safety of everyone involved in our tournaments is our priority.”
On Twitter, Snodgrass posted a photo of a ramp leading down to floor level of the arena and said it was one of the toughest walks he’s had to make in his professional career knowing what the decision means to so many.
For Kenston’s Nastasi, it means the likely end of his wrestling career. After back-to-back shoulder surgeries his sophomore and junior seasons, the Bomber grappler has no plans to continue his athletic passion in college.
“When I placed (third) in the district tournament, I wasn’t expecting that to be my last time ever on the wrestling mat,” he said. “And although I was preparing myself and mentally getting myself ready for, ‘Wow, this is going to be my last weekend ever wrestling,’ like, I’ve been wrestling my whole life, and this is it. I’m going to miss it like crazy.
“But I was expecting to finish my career at the state tournament, not like this.”
While some seniors who qualified for this year’s state tournament were set to make their debuts at the big dance, what makes Nastasi’s story unique is the fact that this is the third straight year he’s been robbed of a trip to Columbus.
During his freshman season, Nastasi went 0-2 at states, losing an 11-4 decision to the eventual third-place finisher and then a 3-1 decision against the eventual seventh-place finisher.
“It was a cool experience, but I wish I would have enjoyed it a little more,” he said. “I took it for granted, for sure, thinking I was a freshman and had three more years to make something happen at state, and I kind of regret not enjoying the experience of the state tournament a little bit more and not knowing that the next three years would have circumstances that wouldn’t allow me to wrestle at states.”
While the likelihood of the remaining winter state tournaments being resumed is slim, the OHSAA had not yet cancelled them, as of Wednesday. The OHSAA has a press conference scheduled to provide updates for winter tournaments and spring sports at noon this Thursday.
The open-ended postponement of last week left a little glimmer of hope for Nastasi, he said.
“They haven’t officially called it off yet, so I’m still somewhat hopeful,” he said. “But I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me and just give me some wise words of wisdom, just knowing that there’s more to life than the state tournament. Even if I can’t compete in the state tournament this year, it’s just about the lessons I’ve learned that will help me through the rest of my life – just all the lessons I’ve learned through rehabbing through two surgeries and getting back on the wrestling mat.”
Not only are wrestlers inhibited without access to mats, but the amount of discipline and mental fortitude it takes to maintain their weights through unknown circumstances sets them apart from other sports. Not to mention, Nastasi had plans to go get fat and happy on vacation this week.
Nonetheless, Nastasi said he’d rather go out and lose at the state tournament than end his career with a third-place victory at districts.
“I would just be grateful to be able to wrestle for one last time,” he said. “I’m going to stay in shape and try to keep my weight down to the best of my ability to just try and be as ready as I can be, just in case that state tournament does still happen.”