In a non-COVID world, Garnet Valley senior Griffin Hollingsworth would have hit the revered 100-victory mark by the second month of wrestling season.
Hollingsworth would have given Matt Marino a run for his money in the school record book for second on the Jaguars' all-time wins list. With a trip to Hershey already on the resume, Hollingsworth was within reach of cementing his legacy as the school's eighth state medalist.
Of course, there is nothing conventional these days about high school sports, or the athletes competing against each other and the coronavirus. Masks, social distancing, few if any spectators and closed locker rooms are only some of the changes.
Hollingsworth was reminded of how different wrestling was upon winning his first match of the season in late January, not early December. Instead of the referee hoisting his arm, after a pin of Chris Green of Ridley, Hollingsworth raised it himself. No touching.
Hollingsworth had to learn to breathe through a mask that also fouls up takedowns and peripheral vision. The mask makes his lungs work so hard, it's like hiking the formidable Manitou Incline again in the mile-high altitude of Colorado. Instead of showering after the match, Hollingsworth threw his sweats on over his singlet, rinsed with sanitizers, and drove home.
After countless hours of work, conditioning and sacrifice, after two months of cancellations and at best, an uncertain future, Hollingsworth had no trouble taking on the million-dollar question.
Was it all worthwhile?
"If I wasn't wrestling, I don't know what I'd be doing," the 132-pound senior Jaguar said. "It's a good feeling going to practice and wrestling every day and not being trapped in the house. Going to different schools and wrestling, being around people is a good feeling. ... I'd rather wrestle (seven) matches than no matches, and we're lucky to have them. It is getting me ready for the postseason and hopefully going a long way."
The bottom line for wrestlers like Hollingsworth is that the coronavirus is just another obstacle to deal with, like ringworm or MRSA or a snow cancellation. The latter used to be the biggest fear of coach Rocco Fantazzi. Now, he can feel Hollingsworth's pain.
"There's a kid who's worked his whole life, who has put the time in and he deserves to reap the benefit of that and to be in the 100-win club and compete for the record," Fantazzi said. "We've had a lot of talks with him like 'hey, we're going to do the best we can to get matches and you've got to take advantage of the opportunity.' But also, it's about what you control. You can control that you're on weight, that you're ready to compete and if we get that opportunity to wrestle, we're going to take it."
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Few sports in Pennsylvania have been hit as hard by opt-outs due to COVID-19 concerns as wrestling.
Wrestlers are constantly grabbing, breathing and perspiring on each other, although only for three two-minute periods. Six minutes is below the state guideline of 15 minutes that considers you at risk if within six feet of a COVID-infected person.
Nonetheless, the state mandates masks indoors or when leaving the house. The same rule applies to high school athletics. "At Garnet Valley our rule is whether you're in school for school or in school for sports, you have to have your mask on," Fantazzi said.
The coach was struck by how challenging masks make coaching. And he was dumbfounded by the lack of a locker room. Coaching staffs have had to rethink almost every detail of their agendas, including where they give their inspirational speeches. It took time for Fantazzi to even be allowed in the wrestling room with more than nine other people, per local health edicts.
The Jaguars had a handful of wrestlers opt out. Some students feared they might infect family members. Fantazzi told those wrestlers they were still part of the team.
During the shutdown in December and January, wrestlers were given the book "Win in the Dark" by Joshua Medcalf. The theme is preparing for competition when no one is watching, improving behind the scenes as a person. The Jaguars bought in, discussed each section via Zoom and bonded virtually.
"We all stay connected every week," Hollingsworth said. "When we got shut down for those three weeks, we got to know each other a little bit more. Seeing each other really helped us out and made us grow. We stayed connected whether it was (virtually) or texting."
The bonding extended to a coaching staff that realized how difficult it was for outgoing athletes to downshift to near isolation. Students are learning on a hybrid model with two days in school and the rest virtual.
"Sometimes it's more than just about wrestling," Fantazzi said. "These kids, these students, these wrestlers, their lives stopped back in March. Some of them just need to be a part of something and it's a little bit more than just wrestling. Maybe that's why my numbers are still pretty good. Our opt-outs joined us on Zoom calls. I think the fact that we do have a bunch of kids in our program, wrestlers in our program who want to be a part of something is because of the culture."
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Hollingsworth is 7-0 this season, three wins by forfeit. He is 95-40 for his career. Next on the career list: Older brother Gavin, a 2019 graduate who finished with 96 wins.
The math says Hollingsworth won't reach Matt Marino, who with 136 victories is second on the all-time school list. Marino's older brother Mike is the all-time leader with 147. Those were the days.
But Hollingsworth can still reach states, take a run at the century mark and, above all, make the most of every opportunity. He and senior Desmon Perry (172 pounds), along with juniors Chris Wood (145), Matt Ricci (120) and Daniel Husain (138) could get a chance to compete in the scaled-down PIAA Class 3A tournament, possibly limited to just one day.
To get there, Hollingsworth and the District 1 wrestlers must prevail at a Super Regional that will include District 11 powerhouses like Nazareth and Bethlehem Catholic. There are no automatic bids to the districts, wrestlers needing to qualify.
"It's different, it's a challenge," Fantazzi said. "Again, you go back to what can you can control?"
Deep down, the coronavirus pandemic has brought out the best in coaches and wrestlers throughout Delaware County.
Take the Chichester wrestling program. In the "Looking For Matches" virtual bulletin board on Pa-Wrestling.com, Chichester recently was seeking "2 or 3 more matches, to help make a season, for the wrestlers who stuck it out during this school year," next to contact info for Chi coach Jim Beletti.
This was going to be one of Fantazzi's top Jaguars teams. With the season just about over, the Jaguars are undefeated, though in only seven matches, relatively untested.
"We were building up and last year we took a step forward maybe a year earlier than I thought we would," Fantazzi said. "And it was awesome. We had like a three-year window where I thought we would have one of the best teams in Garnet Valley history. Last year was Year 1, this was Year 2 and next year would be Year 3. We're trying to make the best of it. You get out of it what you can get out of it and you achieve what you can achieve. And right now, for us, it's a win to be back together as a team, it's a win to be on the mat, it's a win to compete."
Fantazzi laughed when it was suggested he was known for giving his wrestlers some inspirational speeches. Like other coaches, he will never forget this team's resilience against COVID.
Another league championship would give the Jaguars something more to take away from a season like no other. Twenty years from now, Hollingsworth will tell a story his kids won't believe.
"That it was a crazy year but we all got through it," Hollingsworth said. "And we made the most out of it."