Mascoma wrestling is the Upper Valley’s only program going to the mat in the pandemic

  • Mascoma wrestling coach Rick Simula demonstrates the monkey roll takedown move with senior Caleb Hobbs during practice in West Canaan, N.H., on Jan. 11, 2021. In its 10th year, the team is proceeding with a winter sports season during the COVID-19 pandemic while following precautions. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mascoma senior Cam Stebbins, left, and freshman Cam Jespersen work on their wrestling moves during practice in West Canaan, N.H., on Jan. 11, 2021. The Royals open their season at Winnisquam on Jan. 16. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mascoma wrestling coach Rick Simula has added an electronic whistle as well as a facemask to practice during the COVID-19 pandemic in West Canaan, N.H., on Jan. 11, 2021. A wrestler in high school and college, Simula brought wrestling to Mascoma when he he was hired as an educational case manager about a decade ago. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mascoma wrestling coach Rick Simula helps sophomores Emma Bill, right, and Emma Mullaly with defensive moves during practice in West Canaan, N.H., on Jan. 11, 2021. Bill is back on the mat after taking a break from wrestling after seventh grade and this is Mullaly's first season with the team. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 1/12/2021 9:54:47 PM
Modified: 1/13/2021 10:07:25 PM

WEST CANAAN — Contrary to myth, only certain species of shark hunt alone. Mascoma wrestling belongs with that group this winter, but only out of circumstance.

Of the Upper Valley’s four NHIAA high school programs, the Royals are the only ones committed to a wrestling campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic. As Lebanon, Stevens and Newport either sit out or lean in that direction, Mascoma will open its competitive season on Saturday against Winnisquam.

Program founder and coach Rick Simula oversaw 18 athletes during Monday’s two-hour workout in the school cafeteria. From that group, Simula hopes to fill most of the 14 weight classes in each of his four scheduled dual meets.

The Royals won’t get the full NHIAA experience, but at least they’re getting something.

“It is one of the strangest years that we’ve ever had to plan for,” Simula admitted. “It’s unfortunate. I think our team is solid this year. It’s kind of putting a fly in the ointment, so to speak, as far as our plans as a team and as a group.”

As with other New Hampshire sports, wrestling will feature geographic scheduling groups to limit travel. A number of NHIAA schools have yet to decide on participating. That leaves Mascoma with a schedule of home-and-home encounters against Winnisquam and Plymouth and some state tournament uncertainty.

“I really appreciate having a season,” Mascoma senior heavyweight Caleb Hobbs said. “It’s helpful to have a season, especially with everything going on, to have a little bit of normalcy and to keep people in shape, because I know a lot of us do other athletics. It’s been difficult trying to follow the rules and conduct, but we’ve been doing a good job.”

High school wrestling has been under a spotlight of worry, both locally and nationally, since pandemic restrictions became necessary. Vermont canceled the season outright in November out of concern for virus transmission. Other New England states either haven’t committed yet or have postponed wrestling to later in 2021. The NHIAA continues to leave participation decisions on any sport to its member schools.

Simula said athletic director Rodney Brown took the lead in working with the SAU 62 school board to approve the season. The Royals have since dedicated themselves to following COVID mitigation rules both in school and beyond.

“It’s been different, for sure,” said senior Cam Stebbins, a co-captain with Hobbs. “At first we started with just conditioning and stuff, lifting a lot. We weren’t sure if we were going to be able to wrestle. Then the school board passed it, thank God, and it’s just been crazy since, honestly.”

Mascoma has had to work around challenges unique to both sport and school.

As Simula oversaw his facemasked roster during Monday’s workout, an assistant coach frequently ran a mop over vacant spaces of the Royals’ practice mat. Mascoma has formed four-athlete groups Simula calls “shark bait” — linked by relative weight, the quartets only work with each other and no one else on the team. Athletes are frequently reminded about sanitizing hands and maintaining social distance when off the mat.

The school’s academic schedule has provided an added hurdle. Mascoma’s block system means only half of the student body is on campus at any given time. That creates transportation challenges for athletes not at school on certain days.

“Trying to make sure everyone is here on their off days has been somewhat difficult and hard to coordinate,” Simula said.

The area’s other teams have opted out, or are close to doing so.

Lebanon’s growing program won’t compete this winter, according to athletic director Mike Stone. Stevens’ ability to participate is tied to Newport, which welcomed the Cardinals for workouts the past couple of years, but the Tigers appear to be headed toward a quiet winter.

The Newport School Board — after splitting a 2-2 vote on the question a month ago — unanimously approved wrestling on Thursday, with the proviso that all athletes and any siblings go to remote learning during the season. In an email last week, Newport coach Zakk Sharron expressed doubt that any of his wrestlers would agree to that condition. Athletic director Jeff Miller indicated in a Monday text that a final decision would be made by Friday.

Although dates aren’t official yet, the NHIAA will hold a state championship tournament in February in a dual-meet format. There will be no individual state meet, nor will there be an NHIAA Meet of Champions.

Stebbins ranked second in NHIAA Division III at 126 pounds last winter, Hobbs placed fourth at 220 pounds and Mascoma took fifth place as a team at D-III states. Such feats won’t be possible this winter, but going it alone is still better than going not at all.

Simula would love for an “uneventful” season.

“If we have four matches and then we have a team tournament, so they can get eight matches in this year safely,” he said, “then I’m happy for that part of it.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.




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