Jackson wrestlers getting back to action

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

JACKSON TWP.   Anyone who's had to spend time in quarantine since the COVID-19 pandemic can relate to how the Jackson Polar Bears felt last week.

Right in the middle of the high school wrestling season, the team was forced to suspend activities for two weeks due to virus-related issues. That meant matches and training went on pause and the most any wrestler could do was work out and condition on their own at home.

After returning to action, the schedule didn't exactly allow the Polar Bears a long acclimation period to get back up to speed.

"We had our first match back from quarantine on New Year's Eve," head coach Ronnie Hepner said. "We wrestled Dover, Alliance and Waynedale ... Waynedale was the state runner-up last year for the dual team tournament and we beat them 36-33, so that was a really big win for us."

In a sport such as wrestling, where conditioning is a huge part of the equation, not being able to drill and train posed a big challenge. Add in not being able to refine and hone technique and you have an unpalatable mix for a wrestling team.

However, Hepner liked what he saw from his wrestlers when the team resumed its activities.

"I'm really happy with how we responded with all the adversity we faced during our two-week break with quarantine and having only five days to practice before competing," Hepner said. "It has been difficult because with the two-week layoff being so different, we had to start over with conditioning, but the kids picked up right where they left off technique-wise. Every team is going through the same thing, so we're not making any excuses."

One offshoot of the shutdown is that Jackson still hadn't wrestled its first Federal League meet as 2020 came to an end. That is slated to change with the much-awaited Jackson-Hoover dual this week, a match that heralds Jackson's dive into league competition this month. Aside from a dual team tournament at Woodridge this weekend – which the Polar Bears won last season – the focus will largely be on league competition in January.

The team's core continues to be helmed by junior William Maghes (120 pounds), senior Jonathan Dimos (126 pounds), sophomore Ben Holzapfel (220 pounds), sophomore Colton Arnold (285 pounds) and senior Brendan McKinney, with McKinney's brother Griff battling injuries but remaining one of the team's top competitors.

Maghes and Dimos each have just one loss on their record, to a state-ranked competitor in both cases, while Holzapfel, Arnold and Brendan McKinney with only two or three losses on their respective ledgers.

Hepner compared the season to the small-scale chaos NFL teams have dealt with as they've lost top players and sometimes even entire position groups – such as the Cleveland Browns losing their top four receivers prior to a game – and notes that the lineup has become an ever-shifting entity in the early going.

"When you don't have Griff McKinney or another starter, it's tough to replace guys like that, but the entire team is working hard and it's next man up like the NFL," Hepner said. "We've been moving guys around a lot, both to fill the  lineup and to get kids matches."

In some cases, the coaching staff has moved wrestlers to another weight class as a way to get them matches against elite competition. Other times, a wrestler has been out of action due to injury or COVID protocols, forcing someone else to step up and fill the void.

Adaptability and versatility will continue to be vital traits the rest of the way this season, but Hepner complimented the attitude his squad has brought to the mats, as well as their willingness to do whatever is asked of them for the team. Now that they're out of quarantine and back to competing, they'll have the opportunity to pair that positive attitude with on-mat experience and see how far they can go.