What threatened to be a disappointing day actually turned into an occasion worthy of celebration Saturday as, despite several no-shows by usual contenders, the scrappy Bainbridge Spartans fought their way through eight teams of opponents to emerge in fifth place overall at this year’s Island Invitational wrestling tournament.
The varsity wrestling team’s only home turf tournament of the year, a regular highlight of the season, the annual invitational typically draws about a dozen squads to the BHS gymnasium every January. This year’s contest saw participants from Port Angeles, North Kitsap, North Mason, Interake, Mercer Island, Anacortes, Mountlake Terrace and Kingston make the trek.
“It was really kind of a turning the corner moment for a lot of our kids,” BHS Head Coach Dan Pippinger said. “It’s definitely an opportunity for everyone to kind of be together and work together, definitely a bonding moment for the kids.”
Port Angeles came out on top, ultimately, boasting a team score of 199.
North Kitsap took second place overall (169.5), North Mason third (150), Interlake fourth (120), Bainbridge fifth (111), Mercer Island sixth (105), Anacortes seventh (99.5), followed by Mountlake Terrace (74) and Kingston (22).
Island grapplers scored numerous top 10 finishes in several weight classes as well, an achievement all the more remarkable as so many on the squad are still quite green.
“A lot of our guys are new, so this is their first year getting into wrestling so it can be tough,” explained Nate Michaels, Spartan team captain and BHS senior. “There are a few guys who are freshmen that are looking really good. They have a great work ethic, they’re picking up the moves and techniques really well.
“Wrestling has a steep learning curve in general,” he added. “I think some of the freshmen, like Doug Takada and Ben Dunscombe, are looking really good, they’re catching on really well. They’ve got a great work ethic. It’s not just them, but a lot of the freshmen are learning pretty well and they’ve got a lot of good potential.”
Indeed, both Takada and Dunscombe finished in the top of their brackets: Dunscombe took fifth overall in the 138-pound competition, and Takada also finished fifth, in the 145-pound bracket.
It was Spartan senior Clay Wren, however, who claimed the best overall finish of the day, laying claim to the second-place spot in the 170-pound bracket.
“That was also a personal best for him,” Pippinger said of the star Spartan. “It was great for him to get into the finals and take that next step for himself and kind of get his confidence about being able to go out there and execute a game plan and make it work for himself.”
Wren is, in a word, “quiet,” the coach said.
“He’s a quiet leader,” Pippinger said. “He holds the other kids to standards in terms of respect and accountability. He holds the guys pretty accountable for doing the right thing and paying attention and focusing in and things like that.”
Michaels himself finished fourth among the 160-pound wrestlers, and sophomore Spartan Stephen Reinhardt finished eighth in the same group.
For both Michaels and Wren, the coach said, it was fine-tuning time.
“For both Nate and Clay, we keep trying to get them working on the little things they can do to improve at this point in the season,” Pippinger said. “As seniors, if they polish up a few things they’ll take that next step before we get to their postseason.”
The Island Invitational was also the last home meet of the year, and marked the team’s Senior Night. Upperclassmen Wren, Michaels and Koa Goff were recognized.
“It’s a big week for them,” Pippinger said. “Last home meet of the year, last Island Invitational of their career, and it’s always good to be successful and come out of that feeling really good about yourself.”
Freshman lightweight Hiram Topham finished fourth overall in the 106-pound bracket, and Bainbridge was twice represented in the top 10 of the 120-pounders: sophomore Indigo Weappa took fifth place, and freshman Aidan McInnis claimed sixth place.
Finally, Bainbridge heavyweight junior Mac Schelbert took fourth in the 195-pound division.
The MIA opponents did nothing to ease the Spartans’ route to the top, Pippinger said, and each of the top island grapplers earned their placement.
Hosting a quality event and, alternatively, traveling to participate in an event another teams worked hard preparing is part of the mutual respect that drives the oft-misunderstood sport of wrestling, Michaels said.
Pointing to the team from Port Angeles, Michaels explained that even though it was a long drive for the Rough Riders, some of the closer teams still didn’t make it out.
Even just the experience of hosting or attending such a large event is a big deal, he added, especially for the newbies. No amount of no-shows was going to dampen the Spartans’ spirit.
“This is our big, ol’ tournament for the year,” he said Saturday, before returning to the stands to watch one of his teammate’s matches.
The Spartans’ Wren moved through two byes early on to face off against Anacortes’ Parker Smith in the third round. He got Smith pinned in 1:04, moved on to grapple with Alex Havel, also from Anacortes. That match he managed to end nearly as fast, pinning Havel in 1:55 and moving on to wrestle North Kitsap’s Kyle Jaynes.
Then, Wren was finally pinned after more than five minutes and Jaynes was awarded the top spot in the bracket.
Michaels had a day of ups and downs, having also moved through an early bye — just one, though — before claiming his first win against Derrick Dunaway, of Port Angeles, in 3:08.
“I think I came out a little bit flat,” Michaels said of his first match. “But, I did some preparation beforehand to make sure that I was ready and worked on the stuff I needed to work on.
“My muscles were feeling a little bit tired,” he added. “But that went away after the match, of course. For me, it gets easier the more I get into the match. I start getting into the flow of wrestling better. It’s similar to football; you get into the zone, you stop thinking, you don’t really feel anything, it’s just your body moving and getting to the place that it needs to be. It’s where you want to be; allowing your body to make a decision for you.”
Michaels next faced Jonah Andrews, of Mercer Island, but was pinned in 3:51.
“I need to finish through with my moves,” he said afterward. “I know the technique really well. I don’t know, I just don’t finish it sometimes and I really should. That’s a big problem I’ve had.”
Asked why he thought he might not be following through on some of his moves, Michaels looked to the way he had been practicing.
“I just might not be practicing right,” he said. “In practice, maybe I’m not going hard enough, or getting the feel of getting it done correctly.”
In his first round of the consolation bracket, Michaels, after again moving through a first-round bye, bested North Kitsap’s Noah Cameron in 3:27.
“I felt I did better,” Michaels said. “One of the bigger things was I feel my conditioning was better than his. I think I wore him down. I had a good shot on him, I executed better and with more effort than I did last time.”
In his lat match of the day, Michaels was defeated in a 16-3 decision by Port Angeles’ Riley Gale, who took third overall.
“Despite the score, I felt like we were fairly evenly matched,” he said. “I wasn’t going for my shots enough, I think that’s something I can improve on.
“I think I was waiting for it a little too long or I was not taking a chance when I had it. It might have been because in the beginning I think I was trying to loosen up and then I was just tired by the second part of it.”
When asked how he felt about his overall performance, the senior said that he was happy with his efforts — but there’s always room for improvement.
“If I want to get to State I think I’m going to have to work harder and make sure I finish my moves all the way through,” Michaels said. “I think more live wrestling will help a lot.”
Every bit of live wrestling experience certainly made a difference for rookie wrestlers Takada and Dunscombe.
Takada started a bit slowly Saturday, losing his first match against Thomas Francisco-Juan of North Mason High School.
“It’s tough,” Takada said. “It’s challenging. It’s a lot of fun. It pushes you.”
Takada hefted much praise on his fellow first-year wrestler, Dunscombe, for a knockout performance during his own first match. He began the tournament by pinning his first opponent in about 30 seconds.
“It was pretty nice, it felt good winning,” Dunscombe said.
However, the Spartan wasn’t about to start getting cocky so early on.
“Starting out, it feels like every day you just increase so much more,” he said. “There’s a lot more to learn.”
The tournament came, Pippinger said, at the ideal time for the team.
“It was a good day for the kids,” he said. “In terms of just the overall caliber of the tournament, we had the right kind of competition for our kids this season, just to give them opportunity.
“There were no state championship caliber teams at our tournament this year, but there was some good competition and it was the right fit for where we’re at in terms of being young and developing.”