Minnesota prep sports are already underway as practices began last week. With the first wrestling matches on the schedule for Thursday, the unofficial dawn of the competitive wrestling season is now days away. This winter will look like none other however, from the number of matches to how they are held and what it looks like inside the gym will all be new.

The most visible change will be a continuation of spectator limitations, similar to the fall season. Wrestling fans will be allowed inside gyms, but only at 25% capacity or 150 person maximum. Social distancing will also be enforced and masks must be worn. For those without a ticket or choosing to not attend, Lake City, Goodhue and Zumbrota-Mazeppa all confirmed that streaming options will be available for home viewing.

More under-the-radar changes that have significant impacts on the wrestling programs but that the average fan may not recognize is the elimination of regular season tournaments and competitions in general. An annual staple in the wrestling community, weekend tournaments have been pushed aside and replaced with duals and triangulars only. The quantity of events is capped at 16 as well, with only two competitions per week. And, unlike their peers in some of the other winter sports, wrestlers will not be required to wear a mask while on the mat. Wrestlers will still be required to wear a mask while on the bench however.

With or without restrictions on participation, area coaches are anxious to get their teams on the mat to see competitive wrestling once again.

Lake City returns plenty of experience

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Lake City head wrestling coach Doug Vaith can sense that excitement as his team is in the middle of its second week of practice. He said the energy has been building each day and the anticipation of competing is peaking. What’s more, is that with a shift from large-scale tournaments to duals and triangulars, he thinks the team camaraderie will continue to develop at a higher level than a typical season.

“They’ll miss out on that individual stuff, but the bonus of this is their focus will be more on the team,” Vaith said. “It's going to be more enjoyable for them to be able to watch each other all the time.”

There’ll be plenty of good wrestling to watch as well, since the Tigers return a lot of experience to the mat.

Nate Evans, who led Lake City with 18 pins last year at 106 pounds returns after placing fourth in sections. Luke Skifton returns after a third-place finish in sections and is five wins shy of 100 career victories. Jonathan Harvey also returns after two consecutive state entries. Wrestling at 120 pounds last year, Vaith expects him to slot in at 138 this winter.

In the middleweights, Joe Kozlowski returns after a second-place finish at sections and state entry, as does Dominic Goihl-Krier, who finished third in the section. Heavyweight Max Balow also returns after a third-place section finish.

“Last year was really a big year for us. We started off the year with two broken legs and an ACL injury. We ended up with 10 kids wrestling for first and third in the section,” Vaith said. “This year’s group, a lot of them were a part of that and got a feel for that and they're ready to kind of match that if possible.”

Lake City opens its season Saturday in Pine Island.

Goodhue’s juniors continue maturation

Two years ago Goodhue went to state with a loaded senior class and a young group of freshmen wrestlers. Last year as sophomores, that group took its lumps as it tried to find its footing without the seniors from the year before. This year, head coach Josh Grant expects the now junior wrestlers to find their stride and be the backbone of the team.

“Last year was those guys trying to figure out how to wrestle without having those seniors in the lineup,” Grant said. “Now they’re juniors and they’re all still here. And we are being led with no seniors this year.”

The biggest loss for the team is senior and two-time state medalist Baxter O’Reilly, who will not be wrestling this year. O’Reilly was the lone wrestler to make it to state last year for Goodhue.

The cupboard is not bare however as juniors Cody Lohman and Blake Carlson return after third-place finishes at sections last year. Junior Max Taxdahl also returns after a fourth-place finish in sections one year ago.

“We have a really nice group of 10 juniors and eight sophomores underneath them that we expect to emerge and take that next step forward,” Grant said. “We’re very excited about what we’re going to see on the mat with all these guys.”

Goodhue opens its season Friday at home against Chatfield and Kenyon-Wanamingo.

Z-M restocks with experience, leadership

Zumbrota-Mazeppa head coach Link Steffen is optimistic about the 2021 wrestling season as he sees a lineup filled with depth. At the top of the lineup are three returning state entrants in Ethan Kovars, Gabe Tupper and Lucas Schiell.

“We have a good core and nice leadership of six seniors, and they’re followed up by six juniors as well,” Steffen said. “We also have 11 ninth graders and quite a few of them have experience, and hopefully they can impact the lineup positively this year. We're going to have to lean on them if we're going to go anywhere this year.”

Aside from the state qualifiers, Beau Jurrens returns after a fourth-place finish in sections last year, as does Kyle Cloutier and Tanner Mancilman — both of whom finished fifth in sections last year.

The hope for Steffen is that the leadership group can help groom the next generation of wrestlers while also building on the successes from a year ago. Steffen said the goal, like every year, is to try and get the team ready to win a team section title and as many individual medals as possible.

Z-M opens its season Saturday with a trip to Lewiston-Altura.