A group of young Friday Harbor wrestlers traveled to Tacoma Feb. 18, where they competed alongside 1,860 other young wrestlers at a state-level competition.
Those students include Amelia Berwald, who became a novice state champion and third-place winner in the open state tournament; Blade Bison placed third in the novice and sixth in the open state; Wyatt Berwald placed third at novice; Jett Olson placed second at novice and eighth in open; Harper Feliz placed third and novice and sixth at open; Killian Heckele, novice state champion; Roman Jackson, novice state competitor, and Liam Wilson, novice state competitor. The team also includes competitive wrestlers Keegan Heckele, novice state competitor; Sebastian Visciglia; Jonah Visciglia; Reese Olso and Kacy Bogart. The event is huge, Berwald explained, and anyone could be intimidated by all the lights and action.
“You have to have the confidence, the wherewithal to focus in that setting,” Travis Berwald, assistant coach, explained. Wrestling he added, requires both mental and physical preparation, and it is ok to be uncomfortable and outside your comfort zone.” Wrestling is after all a contact sport that includes learning moves and positions that are not always comfortable.
Predating football, rugby, baseball or basketball is wrestling. It’s a sport that requires close contact, highly individual, yet full of team spirit.
“You win or lose on your own, and that is a life lesson,” Berwald, said. “Once you get out on the mat and shake [your opponent’s] hand, it’s up to you.” Four years ago, head coach Lance Bison, assistant coaches Curt Olson and Shane Bison, and Berwald, saw the need for a young wrestling club to act as stepping stones toward being on the high school team. As part of the Ascend Wrestling Academy, the group consists of students as young as five years old, all the way up to the eighth grade. Ascend has groups all across the state that come together for tournaments, and at the end of the season a state competition.
Four years ago, only five Friday Harbor students participated. This year there were around fifteen. The team is co-ed, some of them Tiger football cheerleaders.
“We have been waiting to start until the end of football season because many of our wrestlers are football players and cheerleaders,” Berwald said, but next year they hope to start a little earlier to get more practices in before tournaments.
The group is not part of Friday Harbor Athletics or Island Rec, but a private group that has had the good fortune of donors who have helped pay for two days a week at the fairgrounds, and uniforms.
The season usually lasts from mid-October through mid-February with practices Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4-5:30 p.m. As the program grows, the coaches hope to add more mat time.
“It’s a challenge. A student in Seattle might wrestle five times a week, while our kids only wrestle twice,” Berwald said, not to mention travel time and costs from both ferry and hotels to get to the tournaments. It’s a lesson for the youth, he added, and sometimes the coaches do have to remind the wrestlers that the other teams may be on a different skill level. “It also makes winning more special,” Berwald added, knowing they have put the work in for the win.
There are two categories, one for those who do not have two years of experience, the novice category, and the open category. The open category, as the name suggests is open to a variety of skill levels.
To see how far the students have progressed in a matter of months makes the coaches proud, Berwald said. “They start out so green, and to see that progress. They say practice makes perfect, but that isn’t true. Practice makes progress.”
The future of Friday Harbor wrestling looks bright, he added.
“We couldn’t be more happy with these kids,” Berwald said. “All the kids busted their butts, poured their blood sweat and tears into it we went through power outages, snow, ferries.”
Through it all the wrestlers built strong friendships, strength of character, and learned lessons that hopefully will last a lifetime.
“We are so passionate about this sport. It takes a community to build this program,” Berwald said, thanking the San Juan County Fairgrounds, BBB Ranch, the parents and families that support the students and provide them with the confidence and mental support they need to compete well.
“It is an individual sport, but at the end of the day we come together as a team. We call it our wrestling family,” Berwald said.