Reaching Mat Classic meant sacrifice for Hunter Newman

South Whidbey High School sophomore wrestler Hunter Newman

If fate and destiny exist, then wrestling was always Hunter Newman’s future.

The South Whidbey High School sophomore’s dad is the Falcon wrestling team’s assistant coach, and Newman practically grew up in the mat room. Its white walls were his crib cage and its padded blue mats his playground.

As a toddler, he tumbled around like children do. As a boy, he played and wrestled like children do. As a teenager, he’s the first sophomore to reach the state wrestling tournament, Mat Classic XXVII this weekend, in head coach Jim Thompson’s 12 years.

For Newman, a 5-foot-8, 132-pound, lean-and-mean grappler, there was never any doubt wrestling would be his main sport.

“I knew I was going to be (a wrestler),” Newman said.

His dad, Paul Newman, is a tall, gruff-looking goatee-sporting man with a booming voice. Even he was brought low with emotion the moment his son secured a berth to the state tournament at the Feb. 14 1A Region 1 wrestling tournament. Hunter Newman said he saw his father tear up a bit after winning his second-round match, and the moment hit him hard.

“I was overwhelmed with joy,” he said. “I couldn’t speak. I just knew I was going to state — I was so excited.”

Thompson knows well the experience of being a father and a coach. It was four years ago that he was coaching his own son on toward the state tournament.

“It’s funny when you’re sitting with a father,” Thompson said, recalling the anxiety of his assistant coach during the Feb. 14 matches. “Paul was freaking nervous.”

In general, Newman is an active young person. He rides horses in gaming competitions and has won awards at the Island County Fair. He plays football in the fall. He’s actively and passionately religious as a member of the South Whidbey Assembly of God, where he attends Sunday services and weekly Bible studies.

“All my grace goes to God,” Newman said in a phone interview on his way to the Tacoma Dome, the site of the tournament that began Feb. 20.

Perhaps Christianity has provided him the road map to sacrifice. Wrestling is often about shedding pounds to make the right weight division, and that meant giving up sugar, junk food, and “teens’ favorite things to eat” during the season which started in mid-November and wraps next week.

“Those days sucked; Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, all that,” Newman said. “You just want to gorge yourself, eat as much as you can, but you can’t.”

After practices, especially the day before a match, Newman ran. Not because he especially loves jogging, but so there was no doubt he’d make weight. Some of his post-practice runs lasted seven miles, but most were at least two.

Having never even attended a state tournament, Newman said he was told about the scale of the day. Mats and wrestlers everywhere, camera shutters snapping, bright lights, loud crowds.

“From what my dad said — Coach Newman — at first you’ll be overwhelmed because of the number of mats and number of wrestlers, it’ll go really fast,” Hunter Newman said.

“This is no different than a regular tournament,” he later added, referring to having competed in several large-scale events.

By 11 a.m. Friday morning, his first match against Naches Valley freshman Jared Navarro started. The double-elimination format guarantees Newman will see at least two bouts, though if he wins he fights on.

On the mat, Newman said his advantage is his ability to stay calm under pressure. Riding a horse moving at a clip and maneuvering around cones and barrels makes rolling around a mat less harrowing for Newman.

“My mind’s always running how to do this, how to do that,” he said.

On Thursday, the night before the tournament’s matches got underway, Newman said he envisioned a small dinner, just to make sure he’d make weight Friday morning — the fate of all wrestlers.