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UNLV wrestling team 8th at nationals amid coronavirus spread

When UNLV’s wrestling team, a club sport not under the NCAA’s auspices, traveled to Allen, Texas, on March 11 for the national championship meet, the nation’s sporting events had yet come to a halt.

The Pac-12 Conference men’s basketball tournament played its first-round games at T-Mobile Arena that day, and college and professional sporting events dotted the landscape.

But that began to quickly change, and by the following day college and pro sports were not being played anywhere because of the growing threat of the coronavirus pandemic. Well, almost anywhere.

With about 90 teams on hand, the National Collegiate Wrestling Association opted to continue and finish the national meet.

“When we went out there for that Thursday through Saturday after we flew in Wednesday, the world changed over that time,” UNLV coach James Downing said. “Each day, we learned more and more about COVID-19.”

He said meet officials took increasing precautions such as posting signs that stressed the importance of hand washing, but because there were few spectators, Downing and other coaches believed continuing wouldn’t pose a significant health problem.

“It seemed to me it was a controlled environment,” Downing said. “I felt comfortable it was a safe environment to be in.”

He said, however, if the meet had been “a week or two later, I don’t think they would’ve held it.”

The wrestling team, because it’s not part of the NCAA, is not overseen by UNLV’s athletic department. Downing used university guidance on traveling out to the Dallas area and while the team was there.

It was a successful trip, with the Rebels finishing eighth, with 14 wrestlers making the field, though injuries kept two from competing. UNLV had five make nationals two years ago and 10 last year.

UNLV competes in the West Coast Conference against schools such as Southern California, UCLA, Arizona and Fresno State, and has won the league title two years in a row.

The Rebels were an NCAA program before the school cut the sport in 1984. It’s now a volunteer-run, self-funded program with the long-term goal of becoming an NCAA sport.

“Some of these athletes have competed since they were 5 years old,” Downing said. “They come to UNLV. Now they have that option to compete.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.

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