Castleton University’s wrestling team was absent from the NWCA national wrestling tournament in Iowa last week, due to an administrative decision based on the COVID-19 pandemic that has left qualified wrestlers without the opportunity to showcase their skills nationally.
Spartan wrestlers Max Tempel and Michael Gonyea were tapped to compete for All-American honors at this year’s National Wrestling Coaches Association division three national championship tournament in Coralville, Iowa. The NWCA tournament takes the place of an NCAA event for wrestling this year that was cancelled due to low participation amid the pandemic. Tempel, who had last year’s national opportunity abruptly taken away due to the COVID-19 virus, returned for his final year of athletic eligibility to give it one more shot.
“I did it mainly because I wanted to further my education, get my MBA, but number two, I wanted to finish out my career on the mat and I felt like I had some unfinished business at nationals,” Tempel said. “It’s been a real emotional couple of weeks for me and a lot of my teammates and coaches. Its tough because I’ve worked really hard for this…I was doing everything right.” Tempel added that “everything” included training, dieting and maintaining a winning mindset.
The 149-punder from Averill Park, New York, began his wrestling career at Castleton as a freshman and nabbed the record for most wins in a Castleton season with 46. He finished fifth in the region as a freshman, missing national consideration by one match. As a sophomore, he did qualify for nationals, but lost early to the eventual champion and did not earn All-American honors, a goal of his since childhood.
“It’s tough that now I can’t go and finally achieve that goal that I set for myself since I was a little kid, and that is to be an All-American and a national champion. Now, that’s out the window for me. It’s disappointing,” he said.
Another tournament eligible wrestler, Mike Gonyea, a 133-pounder from Albany, New York, still has athletic eligibility left beyond this season. As a sophomore, Gonyea did not wrestle due to an accident the previous summer that seriously injured his hand. Gonyea echoed Tempel’s disappointment.
“I was really looking forward to the opportunity to go to [my first] nationals because I did come close my freshman year…Then I had that bad accident and the amount of effort I had to put in to get back to where I was, working hard, getting my wrestling skills back. I got to that point where I was back wrestling, back in shape and then to have nationals taken away from me, I was really heartbroken,” Gonyea said.
He said he believes that he would have success in Iowa, along with other wrestlers on the team, adding that it was especially frustrating to see the spring sports teams planning to play full schedules, including games out of state. He also said it’s frustrating to not be able to go as spring sports are starting up with travel planned.
“They’re going to be able to travel and compete, and we’re not given that same opportunity,” Gonyea said.
Castleton University President Jonathan Spiro said that the decision was made in accordance with the Vermont governor’s office recommendations.
“Our governor has made a distinction between a contest with just two teams (as with other spring sports) versus a tournament with many teams (as will be the case with wrestling). In addition, none of CU’s teams will be playing in front of the public, but that will not be the situation in Iowa,” Spiro said in an email exchanger. “This decision was made for one reason, and one reason only: To keep our students and coaches safe—as well as all of the people and relatives whom they will encounter when they return.”
Spiro expressed his own disappointment in the wrestlers not being able to pursue their All-American dreams.
“We dearly wish that our valiant wrestlers could travel to Iowa for this competition. Unfortunately, a deadly pandemic is raging in Iowa and it will not be tamed by the time the NWCA convenes…Our wrestlers and their coaches have been great all year about staying safe. In my opinion, they totally deserve to go to Iowa. So, I understand how frustrated they are by this situation,” he said.
Castleton University Athletic Director Deanna Tyson pointed out a ban on overnight trips out of state as a major difficulty in sending the team to Iowa. She also said she felt the school had done a good job getting even a regular season in play for the team.
“I was really disappointed that we couldn’t send the team to Iowa. I thought we did a pretty good job having a season for them, a lot of schools were not participating in wrestling this year. There was less than 50 percent of NCAA schools and that is why the NCAA pulled their championship,” she said. “The decision that was made was collaborative. It was the government’s guidelines that we were following, our institution guidelines, and NCAA guidelines.”
Tyson also stated that the recent lifting of the mask mandate in Iowa, along with fans in attendance at the NWCA event made the trip risky.
“It’s heart wrenching that the seniors couldn’t go to this event. They’re looking at it as a national championship. To me, yeah, it’s a national championship for the teams that are able to show up, but a true national championship I would think would include all these schools that couldn’t wrestle this year to be a national championship. I know they’re looking at it that way, and its unfortunate that they couldn’t take part in it,” she said.
Wrestling head coach Scott Legacy declined a request for comment, but a few of the wrestlers said that he was upset about the decision.
“He wasn’t too happy about that. He did a lot of fighting to try to get us to go, but the final decision was what it was,” Gonyea said.
Ultimately, Spiro defended the choice to keep the wrestlers away from the NWCA championship.
“All year long we have made difficult decisions — that turned out, in retrospect, to be the correct decisions — regarding how to quell the pandemic on our campus. And at every point we faced strident opposition from some students and parents. But we will continue to do what we must to keep our community safe,” he said.
The Spartan wrestling team wrapped up its season with a round of exhibition matches in Henniker, New Hampshire. The team’s final contest vs. Alfred State, scheduled for Saturday, March 13, was cancelled.