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Making the most of it: Chesterton wrestlers adapt to COVID protocols to keep their season going

NEW CARLISLE -- There was still noise.

But for wrestlers, coaches, officials and anyone who's been to a meet in a crowded gym, it was easy to notice the difference Saturday at New Prairie, where the school's Super Duals tournament was held without fans due to COVID-19 restrictions and corporation policy. "I miss having the fans in here, I really do," Chesterton coach Chris Joll said. "It used to be, food was taken care of for the kids, it was a lot louder hearing the number two being yelled. I get nice goose bumps from that." For Joll, it's even more personal than that. "I know that when I'm at these meets, my wife (Molly) is usually with me," he said. "She doesn't get to come because of this. It's kind of a deal for me because we've been doing it like this for as long as we've been married. We try to support each other as much as we can. I miss having a friendly face I can go talk to, to detach myself from what's going on in the match. Plus, she usually has like gum for me and I don't get any gum." The meet wasn't the first time the Trojans have competed without fans. It was the same at Hobart last month, and even when people are allowed, it's just parents. "I've been more JV so I haven't really been in the spotlight as much," Luke Stento said. "But I noticed it our last meet against Michigan City. There were only a few fans there. It felt weird. It felt like it was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop. There's definitely a home field advantage, whatever you want to call it, that hasn't been there this year. It's been sort of neutral. It hasn't had much of an impact." In a way, Brock Ellis believes the absence of a crowd has actually been beneficial to team chemistry. "It's definitely different," he said. "Now you're not doing it for your fans, not trying to put on a show, you're doing it for your team. It's more of a connection. You're focused on helping each other, doing your best for each other, not worrying about anything else. The fans help, but that last match, with Ethan Contreras, we were just as loud as 100 fans. Everybody was screaming, so we get the job done. You've just got to yell louder for the team." Chesterton, Joll said, is able to 'cheat' the protocols a little bit when schools allow live streams, which are handled by the dads of three wrestlers. "They still get to come see their sons wrestle," he said. The only real difference for Aiden Torres is he has to text his folks on how he did if they're not able to attend or watch the live stream. "It's the normal now," he said. "When your parents can't come, it's different, but you get used to it after a while. I think it really brings us together. You've got to cheer. You've got to be your own fans. It makes us more of a fan for each other." As the schedule moves toward the post-season, the Trojans have been by and large issue-free, though Joll believes he and some others may have actually had the virus last February. "I think we were hit with some COVID things at the end of last season," he said. "I felt like crap, a couple guys at the state meet felt like crap. The high school state meet happened, but NCAAs did not, and there wasn't that much of a gap in between before the thing kicked in." While Chesterton's lack of disruptions can, in some part, be attributed to good fortune, there's no questioning much of it is also not a coincidence. "We just follow the directions," Joll said. "I told the kids, there will still be sectionals, there will still be regionals, there will still be semistate, there will still be state. Whether you go there is up to you. That means advancing, being eligible to advance by not exposing yourself or getting contact traced. We have not had any contact tracing as far as team kids, the core varsity guys go, this whole entire year. They're pretty good about being in their own little bubble and so far it hasn't burst." Chesterton has been on point with its health and safety efforts dating back to the summer, and it's been a part of the daily process since. "The kids are used to it," Joll said. "It's the new routine. It's something that's dictating what we do every day of our life. We have had some kids say they're just not feeling well, they're not coming in today. They're taking it seriously. These kids are around each other all the time anyway. They already hang out all the time. We have a COVID screening every day. They have to check in on an app. If they don't check in, they don't come to practice until they've been screened by our athletic department." Stento's particularly in touch with the procedures, since his dad Bernie is the school's certified athletic trainer. "It hasn't really been too different for me," he said. "It's kind of just the expectation, the stuff you have to do." Sure, it requires doing some things you wouldn't normally do, as well as not doing some things you normally would do, but Ellis, who finished fifth in the state at 145 pounds last season, knows the end prize, especially as a senior. "You kind of just have to sacrifice for the team," he said. " When someone wants to hang out with you or go get lunch with friends, you have to think about what happens if one of them has COVID. Who do I contact trace back? Does that take six starters out of the lineup? (Bernie) definitely keeps us on track. We do a COVID screen every day, 12 questions before practice. I'm just grateful to have a season honestly. Illinois doesn't have a season. We're lucky and we're just trying to make the most of the season we've been given." Though his program hasn't been greatly impacted, Joll has seen the attrition rate that the pandemic has had on his sport, as well as how it has adversely affected education.

"I think it's hit a lot of programs that are pretty good," he said. "They're down in numbers, not so much the fear of COVID, it's the fact the kids aren't in school. I wonder how many kids are we losing as far as engagement in academics because they're not coming to school and going to practice, having to achieve something in order to stay on a team. I know as a teacher the number of Fs among the freshman class have increased exponentially. They haven't developed the right learning skills. You don't have a thumb on top of you. The virtual thumb is not the same."

Chesterton went 5-0 in Saturday's New Prairie Super Duals. The Trojans have been largely unaffected by COVID-19 issues this season thanks, in large part, to a strict adherence to health and safety protocols.

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