Hard work, long road trips, aching muscles. And it all comes down to tonight.
The South Whidbey wrestling squad can make school history — 7 p.m. tonight in Erikson Gym — by beating Cedarcrest to become the Cascade Conference champions.
Both teams are undefeated — the Falcons are 4-0 in the league and 7-0 overall.
“This has been our goal from the first day,” senior co-captain Matt Long said. “We’ve worked hard for it and this is our chance to show everyone who we are as a team.”
South Whidbey wrestling was formed in 1985 by former math teacher Jim Gardner. At that time, the school board wasn’t convinced the sport would attract athletes, but Gardner persisted.
“They said OK to a volunteer program that first season,” Gardner recalled.
“We had 40 kids show up and I told the board the next year, ‘Either we’re going to have a full-grown program here or not.’”
That year, and every year since but one, the team sent at least one grappler to state finals. In the early years, the team would practice in the old commons area or sometimes jog down the street to a local church for their workouts.
Still, they’ve never won a team championship. And the area below the wrestling sign high on the wall inside the gym that’s set aside to mark team accomplishments has remained blank in the decade since.
On the first day of practice last November, Falcon Head Coach Jim Thompson took his team into the gym, pointed to that empty spot and said, “You guys can do this. This is your time.”
Key factors in the Falcon’s success this year are coaching, the lack of injuries, a fine balance between the weight classifications and a strong commitment to win by everyone involved.
This is Thompson’s second year at the helm. He and assistant coach Paul Newman made a strong effort this year to get the guys in the best possible shape and teaching the best ways to stay healthy.
There are 14 weight classes and six points are lost when a team forfeits; it adds up fast. Thompson knew he was OK in the middle weights so he worked to improve the smallest and largest wrestlers.
“But I didn’t want to put the kids at risk by moving them up from junior varsity to fill out weight classes,” he said. “I didn’t want them overwhelmed; they need to learn and gain experience in the sport.”
The speed at which they learned surprised even Thompson.
“These kids have performed brilliantly, both individually and as a team. Their parents, school and community have every reason to be as proud of them as Paul and I are,” he said.
A few years ago, South Whidbey installed a special fixture that winches down to throw a high-intensity light over the mat as the gym darkens — the effect helps heighten the tension for both wrestlers and onlookers. The end result is one of the outstanding fan experiences in all of high school sports, especially if a little history is being made.