It’s tough love on the Falcon wrestling mats. But it is love.
It may be hard to tell as coach Jim Thompson scolds some of the wrestlers for not fully extending their arms out while holding 25 pound weights. It’s even harder to decipher the care in Thompson’s words after senior wrestler Jake Leonard grabs his neck after an awkward landing on the mat.
“You’re not hurt,” Thompson said. “You’re OK.”
Thompson and assistant coach Paul Newman have been busy toughening their 20-some wrestlers. The season started the morning of Dec. 1, and the coaches need their wrestlers to be lean, mean wrestling machines if the Falcons are to make an appearance at the state tournament in February.
“I’ve been very close,” said senior Pat Monell, who will wrestle in the 220-pound division much of this season.
Monell missed the district tournament last season with a shoulder injury. State tournament berths were nearly his the previous two seasons when he missed out by a match or two.
South Whidbey’s move to a 1A program may not benefit its wrestling team.
“At the end of the year, I don’t know where we go,” Thompson said.
“It’s kind of bad news for us in wrestling to drop to 1A. Two of the best wrestling schools in the state dropped to 1A in Mount Baker and Blaine.”
Competition will be fierce, just not in the Cascade Conference. South Whidbey is now the only 1A wrestling team in the eight-school league (Coupeville and King’s do not have wrestling teams).
“We’re in the conference, but we’re not really in the conference,” Thompson said.
With an eye toward the future, Thompson scheduled three tournaments that feature 1A schools this season. The Falcons opted out of popular events like the Everett Classic that are fielded by primarily 3A and 4A teams. Instead, players looked forward to the overnight trip to the Rainier Classic tournament, both for the competition and the camaraderie.
“You make a lot of memories, a lot of stupid things, but it comes out all right,” said senior Jake Leonard.
South Whidbey’s strength will be its upper weights. Wrestlers like Monell, Leonard, Beck Davis and Jose Chavez are expected to help anchor the Falcons during dual meets, then slim down as the district playoffs approach.
“I’ll have a legitimate heavyweight this year, which is fun,” Thompson said of sophomore Pierce Jackson.
In past years, South Whidbey’s strength was its middle weights. Two years ago, the Falcons sent one wrestler in the 145-pound weight class to the 2A state tournament at the Tacoma Dome. Weights from 132 to 160 will be filled with underclassmen, except junior Andy Madsen and senior Donnie Sutton.
Uncertainty has gripped the Falcon’s future. Thompson said he had no expectations for the wrestling team in their first year as a 1A team since Thompson began coaching.
“We don’t have kids that have grown up wrestling since they were 5 or 6,” Thompson said.
“Anything that we get, it’s going to be a plus. I know one thing. We’re working hard.”
With many young wrestlers, including a handful of first-time grapplers, South Whidbey returned to its roots.
“We’re going back to basics,” Monell said. “We’re not doing the most fancy stuff in the world.”
Keeping wrestling simple will likely help the Falcons from freshman to senior. As the difficulty increases, athletes have left the program, leading to only four seniors remaining on the team.
“It’s not easy,” Leonard said. “You actually have to work for your limits.”
The family atmosphere kept seniors like Monell and Leonard wrestling. Through the gassers, grappling, exhaustion, soreness, bruises and nosebleeds, the wrestling bonds of brotherhood were too much to turn away from.
“It’s a special fraternity that we have here,” Thompson said.