In one way, this season was already victorious before the Bainbridge High varsity wrestling team even hit the mat.
Attracting younger athletes to the sport has been a problem, and though last year’s turnout was better than previous years (16 Spartans came to tryouts), the past few seasons have seen primarily paltry turnouts and slim rosters abound in this, perhaps the most misunderstood of high school sports.
However, this year attendance is up and a fresh-faced pack of underclassmen are set to give grappling a go. That, along with the more measured contributions of several seasoned returners, longtime Head Coach Dan Pippinger said, means Spartan fans have every reason to be particularly excited about this year.
“We’ve got some kids who are new to the sport, a pretty good, decent sized crop of them,” the coach said.
In fact, 24 students turned out this year, with 20 ultimately sticking it out and making the roster.
“I have three seniors,” Pippinger said. “So I still don’t have a big group of upperclassmen, but we’re going in the right direction in terms of getting the numbers.”
It was the island squad’s continued successful streak (last year was the first in recent memory they did not send anyone to State), general word of mouth around campus, and last year’s new Washington Interscholastic Activities Association regulation, which gave wrestlers a choice for the first time ever of uniform when they step onto the mat: the iconic one-piece singlet or a two-piece outfit of close-fitting “fight shorts and a short-sleeved compression top,” that Pippinger credited with the much-improved number of students at tryouts this year and last.
“I think probably we’ll see a lot more of that transition to the shorts and tops, away from the singlets,” he said. “I would expect that we’ll get some [more newcomers]. We’ve got a good group of some new kids this year, and I don’t know if that — I haven’t asked them — if that was kind of a selling point for them. It’d be interesting to know.”
Though not everyone has settled into the weight at which they will compete just yet, the coach said the team boasts an even distribution of wrestlers across the brackets: Garrett Swanson and Hiram Topham (106 pounds), Cameron Williams (113), Indigo Weappa and Rachel Longridge (120), Aidan McInnis and Kai Weaver-Sanso (126), Koa Goff (132), Ben Dunscombe and Oleg Maguire (138), Clayton Marsh and Doug Takada (145), Nate Grattan (152), Pedro Delfino (160), Nate Michaels and Stephen Reinhardt (170), Clay Wren (182), Mac Schelbert (195) and Sean Hooyer and Beto Allen (285).
The team is led by seniors Wren, Michaels and Goff.
Michaels and fellow returner Maguire are the team captains.
“Both Clay [Wren] and Koa [Goff] are great upperclassmen leaders,” Pippinger said. “The title is not required. [The captains] are not the only leaders on the team and the upperclassmen; they know how to set the tone regardless of whether or not they’re standing in the middle when we stretch, or regardless of the title.”
Longridge remains the squad’s only female — though several others made initial appearances at tryouts.
Many students quickly find the sport is not what they expected, or simply not for them once they get on the mat, Pippinger said.
“That’s kind of wrestling,” Pippinger said. “You have some of these young guys who are like, ‘Hey, coach, this hurts.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s probably going to hurt for a while.’ You don’t get out of wrestling without some strains and sprains and things that you end up just being like, ‘Well, I guess that’s what I have to live with for now.’
“It doesn’t feel good, but it starts to feel good when you start to be the do-er more than the do-ee or figure out how to protect yourself and make sure that you’re putting yourself in a position where that won’t happen to you.”
Discipline and adaption, the coach said, are the main tenets of the sport, and perhaps the greatest lessons it imparts on participants.
“Pain is a great motivator for learning something quickly,” Pippinger said. “I think in this context that’s a healthy thing. In a lot of other places that’s not a great thing, but in the world of sport it’s fantastic. We say, ‘Oh, that didn’t feel good and what can I do differently?’”
It’s a philosophy reflected in this year’s team motto: Live like a Champion.
“We’re talking a lot about what it is that champions live like in order to become champions,” Pippinger said. “There’s a lot more to being a champion than winning and losing. Plenty of champions lose and they’re still champions. It’s about how you become something that you’re striving for and what we’re doing in terms of our mindset, in terms of how we eat, what we put in our bodies, in terms of what I can control and what I can’t control in terms of how I see myself and what that determines — what kind of effort I’m going to put into what I’m doing.”
Structurally speaking, the coach said he expects the usual powerhouse programs to be contenders: O’Dea and Eastside Catholic especially.
This year’s schedule will see almost exclusive double duel-style matches, allowing each team to fit in more contests per meet.
“All our matches this year will be double duels at least,” the coach said. “So we won’t have any single duels this year with just one other team.
“It gets us some more opportunities to get different matches, gives us some dates we can schedule for other teams.”
The Spartans began their season Thursday with a match on the road against Eastside Catholic and O’Dea. They will wrestle at home for the first at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 7, against grapplers from Franklin and Garfield.
With so many tough opponents coming up early in the schedule this year, win or lose, Pippinger said the team would bear in mind this year’s motto.
“Wrestling is meant to be a tool to develop young men and women when they’re here into people who are good to their families, good to their communities, that are good to their school,” he said. “If wrestling’s not making you a better person, wrestling’s not doing it’s job.
“I love wrestling as a sport itself, but if it’s just a sport, it’s just a sport. It doesn’t carry that much weight and I want guys to be really proud of themselves and what they accomplish on the mat.”