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'It’s frustrating': Wrestlers and coaches forced to adjust when it comes to recruiting in a pandemic

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

This was supposed to be a big spring and summer for Aidan Noonan.

A rising senior at Cascade, Noonan made history in February when he defeated West Sioux’s Adam Allard in the Class 1A state final at 126 pounds. He’s the first Iowa wrestler ever to beat a three-time state champion going for a fourth title.

The victory rocketed Noonan up national big boards. He is considered the No. 175 overall prospect in the 2021 class by MatScouts. Colleges are calling, and a strong showing during the summer months could’ve helped him become a consensus top-100 recruit.

But the coronavirus had other plans, canceling every big national wrestling event that’s normally planned for the spring and summer. Because of that, wrestlers hoping to be recruited won't get as many opportunities this summer.

So instead of competing at a slew of national tournaments, meeting coaches and taking college visits, Noonan is just wrestling with his brother every day at home.

“We have a full-sized mat in our barn,” Noonan told the Des Moines Register. “We are pretty fortunate to have that. I’m not sure when I’ll compete again.

“I’ve been getting calls and stuff, but it’s hard because of the dead period. I can’t visit any schools right now.”

The coronavirus shut down sports nationwide in mid-March. The start of the Iowa high school baseball and softball seasons garnered national attention this week, leading team sports’ slow-and-steady return, ahead of even professional sports leagues.

Wrestlers, especially those hoping to get recruited this summer, are facing a different kind of challenge.

USA Wrestling, the sport’s governing body, offers many regional and national events throughout the spring and summer months — national dual competitions, age-level world team trials, national championships, among others. College coaches routinely attend each to evaluate and recruit.

But in late April, USA Wrestling postponed all regional tournaments, age-level world team trials and national dual competitions. A month later, it canceled the 16U and Junior freestyle and Greco-Roman national championships, arguably the biggest and toughest high school wrestling tournaments in the country.

What’s more, the NCAA implemented a recruiting dead period that’s been extended to July 31, banning in-person contact between coaches and wrestlers. Electronic communication is allowed — texts, phone calls, video chats — but visits are not.

“Both on and off the mat, the recruiting situation is unprecedentedly frustrating and difficult,” Willie Saylor, the lead writer and talent evaluator at MatScouts, wrote last month.

He continued: “No events means virtually no evaluations. And that's devastating to an industry predicated on two things: prospects and development.”

For coaches, this summer will be a huge test in the way of talent evaluation and salesmanship.

“We’ve very invasive in our process,” Iowa coach Tom Brands told Trackwrestling this month. “We recruit the Division I pile, but we go a little bit deeper, because this place is different. The coaching philosophy is different. The fans’ expectations are different.

“If you sign up for this, you have to understand all those things.”

All three of Iowa’s Division I programs appear up to the task. Iowa picked up commitments in both March and April, while Iowa State and Northern Iowa have each picked up three recruits in as many months.

But the challenges have been difficult because of the restrictions and lack of top-tier tournaments.

“We don’t have as much to go off of as we normally do,” Iowa State coach Kevin Dresser said. “I think the best way to do it is to have conversations with club coaches and high school coaches. I’ve always said that recruiting is like buying stock.

“It’s never a perfect science, but it’s even less so right now, and it’s frustrating.”

The lack of exposure could ultimately hurt some wrestlers, too.

Iowa’s 2019 in-state senior class had 17 wrestlers go Division I. The class of 2020 had 18. But the 2021 class has just four committed to Division I programs today — Fort Dodge’s Drake Ayala, Ankeny’s Caleb Rathjen (both Iowa), Union’s Adam Ahrendsen (Northern Iowa), and Waverly-Shell Rock’s Bailey Roybal (South Dakota State).

More are poised to join, but the coronavirus wiped out the summer schedule. Per MatScouts, four more 2021 in-state wrestlers are among the nation’s top-200 prospects: Noonan, Sergeant Bluff-Luton’s Jack Gaukel at No. 153; Independence’s Brandon O’Brien, No. 177; and Ames’ Gabe Greenlee, No. 195.

Furthermore, college wrestling coaches could begin contacting recruits in the 2022 class on June 15. Iowa’s in-state 2022 class features six top-100 prospects, per MatScouts — third-most behind Pennsylvania (15) and Ohio (11).

This summer would’ve been their first opportunity for many recruits to receive real feedback from college coaches after competing on a national stage. Now, just like everybody else, they’ll have to wait.

“I'd argue that, at no other time, do we learn more about the recruiting value of a particular wrestler than during the summer after their sophomore season,” Saylor wrote. “The cancelation of events is devastating to the sophomore class.”

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

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