WAVERLY – Joe Breitbach joined the Wartburg College wrestling program as a freshman in 1967.
And he’s been affiliated with the program ever since as a wrestler, coach, announcer and booster.
He has seen just about everything in his 53 years supporting the orange and black.
But then came Thursday afternoon’s stunning news. The NCAA was cancelling all of its winter championships, including the Division III wrestling tournament.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Breitbach said while shaking his head Friday. “It’s been a crazy 24 hours. It’s just surreal.”
Crazy and surreal are an understatement. The widespread coronavirus has essentially shut down professional and collegiate sports around the country and beyond.
Breitbach recognized the Wartburg team during a celebration Friday afternoon at Joe’s Knight Hawk, the restaurant he owns near the college campus.
Instead of warming up on the mats for Friday night’s quarterfinal round at the national tournament in Cedar Rapids, the Wartburg wrestlers instead munched on chicken wings, pizza and cake.
And talked about what could have been.
Wartburg coach Eric Keller was still trying to process what had happened.
“It still hasn’t fully sunk in yet,” Keller said Friday night. “It’s a very serious situation with the spread of the virus, and obviously everyone’s health and safety are the biggest priorities. It’s still difficult though. You go through waves of shock and disbelief and acceptance and try to understand it – all of the emotions. It’s going to take some time to process and work through everything.”
The second-ranked Knights qualified five wrestlers for nationals, including three athletes who were seeded in the top three. Wartburg was gunning for its 15th national team championship.
“One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in 20 years of coaching is walk into a room and relay to our guys that you don’t get the opportunity to wrestle in the national tournament,” Keller said. “I’ve had kind of this Twilight Zone feeling ever since. Is this real? Is this really happening? It’s a hard thing to process. It’s really tough.”
The news that the NCAAs were canceled was especially difficult for Wartburg seniors Max Forsyth and Martine Sandoval, a pair of first-time national qualifiers.
Forsyth, from Charles City, was the No. 3 NCAA seed at 165 pounds. He was in his first-year as a starter.
“In the beginning, I was just in disbelief when they canceled the tournament,” Forsyth said. “I didn’t really know how to process it at first. Once I started letting it sink in thatI might not wrestle again, I was pretty devastated. I couldn’t believe it was real. I was ready to get on the mat and compete, and then they told us we couldn’t wrestle. That’s rough.”
Sandoval, a transfer from Fresno City College, was ranked No. 10 nationally at 157.
“When I first heard we weren’t wrestling, it was shocking to me – it was totally unexpected when I heard the news,” Sandoval said. “We were already down there and we were less than 24 hours from competing. The timing was pretty bad.”
Both wrestlers are holding out hope the NCAA will grant them an extra year of eligibility. The NCAA is giving an extra year to athletes who play spring sports.
“If they give me another year, I’m definitely coming back,” Forsyth said. “If I receive an opportunity, it would all be worth it to come back next season.”
“I would love to come back and wrestle next season,” Sandoval said. “We missed out on the opportunity to compete at nationals and hopefully the NCAA will look at that.”
Keller is hopeful his seniors are able to return, but said it may be a “longshot.”
“I think it would really be justified if they were granted another year – there’s no doubt about it,” Keller said. “The whole culmination of a season is obviously the national tournament – that’s the pinnacle.It’s especially heartbreaking for our two seniors because they never had a chance to compete at the national tournament. This was their first and last opportunity, and they didn’t get the chance.”
The Knights weren’t able to compete in the 2020 NCAA tournament, but Wartburg did capture the championship at the National Duals this season.
The Knights beat defending national champion Augsburg in the finals of that event before defeating the Auggies again in the annual Battle of the Burgs dual meet.
The Knights bring back a strong team next season. Sophomore Kris Rumph was the No. 1 national seed at 133 and junior Kyle Briggs was No. 2 at 174. Junior Jordon Brandon also qualified for nationals at heavyweight with All-American Brady Fritz set to return at 141.
Breitbach managed to put a smile on everyone’s faces after Keller and the five national qualifiers spoke to a packed house on Friday.
“All five of you guys are going up here,” Breitbach said, pointing to his wall of All-Americans. “You all deserve it.”