Five South Whidbey wrestlers will head to state finals in Tacoma this weekend, based on their performance Saturday at the 2A Region 1 meet in Mount Vernon.
Since it was built in 1955 the venerable, funky Bulldog gym has witnessed thousands of young high school athletes struggling to do their best in basketball, gymnastics and wrestling.
But in terms of sheer tenacity, strength and focus, few can compare with the South Whidbey wrestling team — a record 9-of-12 placed at least in the top six while five Falcon grapplers will represent the school at the Mat Classic this weekend.
As a team, South Whidbey placed fifth of 13 teams with 99.5 points at the regional meet.
“I’m extremely pleased with their performance,” said Falcon Coach Jim Thompson. “We were very successful at the individual level and we beat some fine schools, some of which have over 800 students.”
Leading the charge to state with a second-place overall finish are co-captains Ben Morgen (145-pound weight class) and Matt Long (152).
Also going are Aaron Mannie (135) and Trapper Rawls (285) who finished in third place. James Schorr (140) took a fifth and will serve as an alternate.
Placing sixth were Colton Vaughn (103), Brett Warwick (130), Trevor Romero (171) and David Monell (285).
With 150 athletes and 400 family and friends in attendance, the old gym was rocking — two mats were kept busy from 10 a.m. until evening — and people high in the cheap seats broke out picnic hampers and paperback books to pass the time.
T-shirts reading, “It’s not a GAME. And we don’t PLAY,” were hot sellers in the lobby.
With mandatory weigh-in at 8 a.m., it was a long exhausting day for wrestlers and coaches Thompson and Paul Newman — a lot of physical and emotional investment was made getting to this point in the season. When they entered a consolation round, Mannie and Rawls were forced to wrestle four times during the day — in this sport, an athlete must be resilient.
Long spent the time checking out potential competitors while listening to the Rolling Stones on his iPod. Others talked quietly as they waited for their call to the mat.
Mannie carefully watched a grappler from Burlington.
“I see how the guy moves, then ask the coach for advice on defense,” he said.
Vaughn was the first Falcon up; his Anacortes foe picked him up and threw him into a reporter taking photos next to the mat.
“I was mad. He gave me a bloody nose (his opponent, not the reporter) and that’s all I needed to pin him,” Vaughn recalled later. “I hooked his arms, put him in a half-nelson and took him down.”
Mannie won his first match on points, 6-2.
“That guy was good on his feet, very tough to pull over,” Mannie said. “I worked on getting an arm bar on him but he pulled away. Sometimes six minutes can seem like six hours.”
Morgen actually pinned his man but the referee ruled he was out of bounds and Morgen had to settle for a 5-0 finish on points.
Long’s first match was a good warm-up. “I was lucky to start out easy,” he said. “He was a bit of a fish out of water, not a good wrestler.”
Later, Kyle Brown from Mount Baker beat Long in his final match. “He did know what he was doing,” Long said ruefully.
According to the rules, Thompson, Newman and volunteer coach (and former South Whidbey wrestler) Jason Mannie were proscribed from jumping to their feet and shouting advice.
“It’s hard to keep my seat,” Thompson said. “But by now, there’s very little I can tell the guys. They know what they have to do.”
As always, the boys acquitted themselves with integrity and represented their school and community in first class fashion. The Falcon team will be heading down I-5 to Tacoma on Thursday to prepare for the big event.
The Mat Classic begins at 10 a.m. Friday and Saturday in the Tacoma Dome.
Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or email@example.com.