Almost a year ago today, Wethersfield juniors Marcus Nieves and Nick Thompson were coming off top-five finishes at the Class L state wrestling finals.
The pair of all-conference wrestlers and football players had turned their attention to what should have been an offseason preparing for a memorable senior year.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and changed everything.
“I remember ending the season last year and COVID hitting and thinking ‘thank God we finished’,” stated Nieves, who placed fourth overall (182 lb.) at the 2020 class finals.
Thompson placed third overall (195 lbs.) and felt like he could have done better, “I was hungry to get back to where I was and higher, so I was already looking forward to the next football season and wrestling season.”
What transpired over the next 12 months has been crushing for friends that have been competing together for nearly a decade.
Following the cancellation of spring sports, things were looking positive heading into the summer months. The COVID numbers in Connecticut were some of the lowest in the country and plans were being made to have a full slate of fall athletics.
Unfortunately for Nieves and Thompson, both football and wrestling were then categorized as ‘high risk’ by the NFHS (National Federation of State High School Athletics), which led to a ping-pong of indecisions between the CIAC and the state’s Departments of Health.
First was a delay on team conditioning in July. This was followed by a set of guidelines, detailing how teams could return to practice safely with the use of social distancing, cohorts, and masks.
“I had no problem with it as long as I was going to get to play,” recalled Nieves, “By August we expected to have a season and in September they were telling us we would have a season, and then two week later they were telling us we weren’t going to have a season. To swing our moods like that, we all felt devastated. They played with our emotions.”
Thompson added, “I was still hoping we could have a wrestling season but then that just went downhill.”
The full contact sports they excelled in had been reduced to conditioning and non-contact drills.
Throughout it all the two have maintained a positive attitude and have leaned on each other for support.
“We’ve known each other since Mighty Mites and that bond is never going to be broken,” Thompson said of the relationship.
Nieves added that the longtime teammates make each other better, in and out of competition, “He’s basically a brother so we’re always on each other and trying to push each other. During wrestling practice we are spaced out doing wall stuff and we’ll push each other to see how fast we can go and how many reps we can do. Within the team we’re trying to beat each other. It gives me a reason to get stronger.”
Both are known for their power and explosion, both on the football field and wrestling mat, so naturally they used the extended offseason to add more strength through increased lifting.
“The only reason I was lifting was for football and wrestling and to have the hope taken away was bad, but it got me into the perspective that I can still lift to get stronger and I can still have that conditioning so that if I get a chance I’ll be ready,” said Nieves.
Thompson added, “We’re two competitive guys so if we push each other.”
Both are from Hartford and found a second home in Wethersfield, forming a friendship on and off the field.
“I’ve been going to school in Wethersfield since kindergarten so I pretty much grew up here. We’ve been with the same group of people through elementary school,” recalled Nieves, “It was cool knowing I had friends even though I lived in a different town.”
“I’m very grateful to be able to go here. All my friends are here and everyone has supported me,” stated Thompson, who also credited his mom with helping him navigate through the troubling times, ”She has helped me keep my head up about it. I didn’t know if I wanted to wrestle because I didn’t want the same thing to happen that happened in football, but she told me to sign up and see what happens.”
Only having conditioning and strength training during the wrestling season has been difficult but the hardest pill to swallow was not having a real football season.
Both earned all-conference on the gridiron in the fall of 2019, leading an incredible defensive unit that shutout four opponents and held three others to 10 points or fewer as the Eagles earned a spot in the postseason.
WHS head football coach Matt McKinnon praised the two for their efforts a season ago, as well as their resiliency and leadership during months since, “Marcus and Nick lead by example with all aspects of life. They took charge of our team right after our playoff game last December 2019. They were wrestling and still coming to workouts to show the team they were all in. We got hit with a lot of adversity over the past year, and these two kept the team together mentally and virtually over the quarantine period last spring. Over the summer they did not miss a workout and pushed their teammates to the limit. They are the type of players a coaching staff dreams of, preaching the program values and holding others accountable. This includes in the weight room and in the classroom."
McKinnon, along with head wrestling coach Jim Arnold, helped the seniors keep a proper perspective.
“Coach McKinnon always has the right words. He makes us think we could do anything, I’m really grateful for that,” said Thompson, “Coach Arnold is always in our corner, mentally and physically. He’s talks us through stuff.”
“Our coaches have been great though the whole thing. They have us think about the positive side and not on the negative,” added Nieves, “[Coach Arnold] said ‘if wrestling doesn’t happen and we do all this conditioning, what’s the worst that it could do? You’re going to get stronger.’ That’s really helped.”
Optimism for a possible spring football season or wrestling season may be slim, but the glimmer of hope remains after the NHFS changed course last week by eliminating the risk categorization given to each sport.
“Maybe we could fit three or four games for football or maybe have half a season for wrestling,” said Nieves.
Thompson added that he hopes the next generation of Eagles doesn’t have to experience the same fate, “If we get something now it would be a blessing but I just hope that the younger guys are able to have an opportunity.”
Both have already started making plans after graduation and because of the experience of the past year, the two have some advice for the future athletes at WHS.
‘Keep your mind in check. Make sure you’re mentally good as well as physically. In high school things get tough, especially the times we’re in now. We don’t know when our last day might be. Go all out every practice, in the weight room, and every game because like us we didn’t know the loss to New Canaan would be our last game. You can’t look forward because it can get taken away. Just make the most of everything,” stated Nieves.
Thompson added, “If you’re going to do a sport like football or wrestling stay in the weight room, stay positive, and keep your grades up.”
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin