Solon fifth-year head wrestling coach Audie Atienza was already on the road to Columbus with 160-pound senior Jack Mack, who was set to make his state wrestling debut last Thursday at Ohio State University’s Schottenstein Center.
The previous day, that Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.
In Atienza’s mind, the 83rd annual Ohio High School Athletic Association state wrestling tournament was a now-or-never opportunity for the 672 qualifiers across three divisions.
“Initially, and I should say selfishly, I was really disappointed and really upset just with how it came down,” he said. “Word came down Thursday, and it was like 1:30 in the afternoon, but we were actually driving down. We were almost there.”
Atienza said one of his assistant coaches called him up to inform him that OHSSA Executive Director Jerry Snodgrass announced that all remaining winter tournament contests were postponed indefinitely.
Up front, Atienza said he didn’t want to believe it, because, in his mind, the likelihood of the wrestling tournament being rescheduled was slim to none due to the injury risks it would pose to athletes who would no longer be physically prepared without having their everyday grind in the practice room.
The Solon coach said he immediately called his athletic director, Jim McQuaide.
“He said, ‘Just sit tight where you are, and I’ll call you right back,’” Atienza said. “He called me back two minutes later, he goes, ‘Yes, that’s true.’ So, you know, then it was real; I heard it from our boss. And I’m like, we’re right here in the car, and it’s just unbelievable how this could happen. And you go through all the emotions. It was upsetting, it was disappointing and all that. Then we were mad, of course.”
With the flood of reactions directed toward the OHSAA and Snodgrass via social media, it was evident that Atienza wasn’t alone in his immediate state of mind.
After a few days to digest the realities and hazards of the pandemic, Atienza said the OHSAA made the correct decision.
“Now that it’s Sunday, I’ve had a couple days to reflect on it, and, if you take in all the facts and you take in all the factors into account of what it really means and what they’re doing to keep everybody healthy, you know, it’s the right thing,” he said. “Honestly, by these actions across the world – not just in our state, not just in our country, but across the world – if it saves one person’s life, it’s worth it.
“That’s kind of how I’m dealing with it now, because there’s a sense of mourning and a sense of things being fair or not and all that. But, at the end of the day, we’re all in this together.”
Wrestling is important, but people’s lives are obviously more important, he said.
In terms of helping his senior grappler Mack get through the letdown of punching his first ticket to states but not being afforded the opportunity to cash in on that ticket, Atienza said he focused on goals.
“The goal for the year was to get on the podium,” Atienza said. “So, we talked about the things that he crossed off to get there. And we just talked about how each one of the things he wanted to accomplish for the season, he got to cross off one by one.
“So, it was one of those things that you have to look at the positives and not dwell too much on what could have been or what should have happened. But look what we got to do from the beginning of the season until now. As much as I’m sunken about it, I want to let him know that what he did was excellent and how proud we are of him and notice those things that are important that he could take away from this experience.”
While the likelihood of the remaining winter state tournaments being resumed is slim, the OHSAA had not cancelled them, as of Wednesday. The OHSAA has a press conference to provide updates for winter tournaments and spring sports scheduled for noon this Thursday.
But Atienza said making up the state wrestling tournament at this point would be a risk to the student-athletes.
“I think it’s unfair to ask the wrestlers to come back for one more tournament,” he said. “I would just assume they’d make it a wash, because it’s one thing to maintain the weight class, but it’s the way we practice that can’t be maintained.”
At Solon, the Comet matmen practice six days a week. And while the OHSAA could always adjust the weight classes by providing wrestlers weight allowances, it’s the type of shape that the they are in that can’t be replicated, Atienza said.
“Their bodies are used to getting beat up by physical activity, and it’s a grind, and your body gets used to it,” he said. “And if you lay off for even a week, it’s a huge difference. So, what I would foresee happening is that this would be a dangerous thing to do for the wrestlers. Injury rates will increase greatly.
“Even if you’re running every day, it’s not the same thing. The bodies aren’t training every day where they’re pressing really hard. You know, your bones become denser, your muscles become denser. It’s a whole process that it takes over the course of the season to get into the kind of shape you want to be in for the state tournament.”