Column: Showing some heart- Wrestling postseason requires grit in era of COVID-19

Michael Losch
Lake Sun Leader
Versailles' Zachary Radefeld.

Not long after wrestling season ended just over a year ago, the world changed. 

After the tournament’s conclusion at Mizzou Arena in Columbia on February 22, a pandemic began to rapidly spread across this country and made its way to mid-Missouri by mid-March. Thankfully, wrestlers had the privilege of completing their seasons because spring athletes did not. Seniors were robbed of the opportunity to make some final memories in their respective spring sports and underclassmen were robbed of the opportunity to grow and improve. 

COVID-19 stuck around, but high school sports in Missouri managed to make a return in the fall and although it has not been perfect- games have been cancelled and athletes have been quarantined- programs persisted and continued on. So, when it was eventually time for wrestling season, the nature of the sport itself may have been the ultimate test with this pandemic simply because of the contact involved. 

Well, wrestling season is still on and nearing its conclusion with state tournaments scheduled to begin next week. Just to make it to this point may be a small victory considering all that has happened around the world and the struggles that have taken place in the effort to recover and return to some kind of normal. 

“We had a really good season and didn’t really miss anything. We were able to have a complete season,” Versailles coach Shawn Brantley said after the Tigers completed a sectional tournament last weekend. “None of our main guys were quarantined during the season and nobody caught COVID. So, really in the grand scheme of things, you cannot complain a whole lot there.” 

And neither can the other Lake area programs at Camdenton, Osage or Eldon, if having wrestlers qualify for a state tournament says anything. The path to get there this year, though, was a little different. As if COVID-19 did not already provide enough challenges in general, the requirements were a little steeper this year. 

In years past, any wrestler simply needed to be in the top four of their weight class after the district tournament to become part of a 16-wrestler bracket at state. In the era of COVID-19, a sectional tournament was added two weeks after the completion of districts and a wrestler who had the privilege of advancing to it needed to finish in the top three of their weight class to fill out a 12-wrestler bracket at state. That meant simply being in the top four was no longer good enough and those third place matches became crucial. 

Naturally, wrestling requires some kind of toughness. After all, it is one-on-one on the mat and with success or failure resting squarely upon the wrestler’s own shoulders- quite literally, if they wish not to get pinned- it takes some kind of willpower to move on.

Well, one wrestler at Versailles took that challenge head on.

Maybe just being a senior changes the mindset of a wrestler, especially if their season is on the line and there is no future in it for them. Maybe, this pandemic has taught many to not take anything for granted. Whatever was on the mind of Zachary Radefeld on Saturday, a returning state qualifier for the Tigers, he certainly had no intention of his Versailles career ending at sectionals. 

In the middle of a 6-6 tie in a third place match, a match that awarded a ticket to state or brought the season to a bitter end, Radefeld suffered an ankle injury with little time left in the third period. He had a choice to make- call it quits or fight on.

He chose to fight and in the final few seconds, despite just previously hobbling back to the center of the mat after he and his opponent went out of bounds, he found a way to secure a takedown and hang on for an 8-6 victory. 

“I think having some heart is a bit of an understatement. I mean, lots of guys I know and that happens to them, they’re done after that,” said Kannen Wilson, Radefeld’s teammate. “To fight those extra 30 seconds to make sure you have a spot at state, you have to have something else inside you to fight for that. So, good on him.” 

Radefeld was soon carried off the mat in celebration by his assistant coach Brian Markway. His opponent, on the other hand, had to face that bitter reality and briefly laid flat on the mat with his hands to his face. 

It was the kind of moment that could inspire, especially in the face of all that has happened in the world- a true display of spirit and a refusal to give up. The funny thing about sports is that those kinds of moments are all around us- the ability to overcome the odds or persevere through whatever the challenge may be. It can show us that we all have a little ‘something else’ inside us as Wilson put it. 

However Radefeld’s season ends next week, what he displayed on Saturday can live on and remind us all to continue to push forward no matter what we are facing. That just may be the legacy he leaves behind when his wrestling days are done. 

Michael Losch is the Sports Editor at the Lake Sun. He can be reached at mlosch@lakesunonline.com or 573-346-2132