MARYSVILLE — With a shortage of wrestling officials in the area, Marysville Getchell senior wrestler Michael Stewart decided last year to give back to the sport he loves by becoming an official.
As it turns out, the experience ended up benefiting him as well.
Stewart’s officiating background has proved useful on the mat, contributing to a strong season that’s placed him in contention for his first-ever state berth.
Ranked No. 13 by Washington Wrestling Report in the Class 3A 152-pound division, Stewart qualified for regionals by taking third place in last weekend’s sub-regional tournament. He can punch his ticket to the Tacoma Dome for Mat Classic XXIX with a top-four finish in the regional competition, which takes place today and tomorrow at Everett High School.
Marysville Getchell coach Todd Freeman said that while Stewart has always been a smart wrestler, the knowledge he’s gained from officiating has helped lift him to greater heights this season.
“I’ve noticed that it’s made him a much smarter wrestler,” Freeman said, later adding, “We’ve always talked about how the most dangerous wrestlers are the wrestlers that can think while they’re out there. They can change and adapt to whatever the situation is.
“And so now, because he knows the officiating, he brings that extra little nuance that most people don’t have, where he’s really in-depth into the rules. He’s like, ‘Well, I know I can do this and I know I can do that.’ And a lot of kids don’t.
“There were even some times when he would be talking to the officials,” Freeman added, “and they would be like, ‘Wait a minute. How does this guy know so much?’”
Having developed a deep passion for wrestling over the years since taking up the sport in seventh grade, Stewart knew he wanted to stay involved beyond his competitive career. So he decided to get a head start last year by officiating middle school wrestling, which he saw as a way to give back and provide a service that’s in high demand.
Eric Cannon of the Snohomish County Wrestling Officials Association said both the county and state as a whole are experiencing a shortage of officials at the middle-school and high-school levels.
He estimates that high school wrestlers like Stewart account for at least 60 percent of the officiating for middle school wrestling, which began its season recently and will continue through late March. Since middle school matches start before most adults get off work, high-school-aged officials are vital.
“The high school kids are really important to us,” Cannon said. “We can’t do middle school (wrestling) without them.”
Stewart said the most difficult part of becoming an official was “learning all those in-depth rules — rules that you don’t really think about, or that refs don’t call.” He explained that “rules change every year, (with) a little bit of tweaks here and there. So having to know the little stuff was probably the hardest.”
Yet the newly acquired knowledge has paid dividends on the mat for Stewart this season, improving his already-strong wrestling intellect.
Freeman recalled an instance this year when he was trying to relay a strategy to Stewart in the middle of a match. But Stewart, unsure what move his coach was suggesting, put his wrestling IQ to use by pulling both his opponent and himself out of bounds. Stewart then used the brief break in action to quickly discuss a plan of attack with Freeman.
“He was wrestling, but at the same time he was going, ‘What is coach saying?’ And he still had enough smarts to pull himself out without getting called for (stalling), so that he could figure out what I was talking about,” Freeman said.
“That’s the main thing — he knows where he is on the mat. He knows, ‘OK, if I do this, this is what they’re going to call.’”
Freeman said that while wrestling often tends to be a reactionary sport, it doesn’t have to be. Stewart has exemplified that this season with his ability to think multiple moves — or even rounds — in advance.
“I think this year he’s really matured in that style of wrestling, because he’s always a couple of steps ahead,” Freeman said.
Stewart’s officiating background also has taught him, as a wrestler, how to constructively converse with officials on the mat. Instead of arguing a call, Stewart will speak to the official in a more positive manner: “Why did I get called, and what can I do to prevent that (next time)?”
And in a sport with as many judgment calls as wrestling, that can make a difference. Just ask Stewart, who during his time as an official has received his fair share of angry comments from coaches.
“I hate getting yelled at, especially when I know the call is right or my view is different than a coach’s view,” Stewart said. “So being a wrestler now and knowing how to talk to the ref has helped me a couple times.”
In addition to his expanded wrestling knowledge, Stewart has approached this season with added intensity.
After advancing to regionals as a sophomore, Stewart suffered a disappointing end last season when he didn’t make it past the sub-regional tournament. That lit a fire in him that’s fueled this year’s success.
“Not qualifying for regionals last year made me realize how much harder I had to work this senior season in order to move on, and that I wouldn’t be able to rely on what I already know,” Stewart said. “(It) pushed me to improve every possible second I can. It’s been a thought in the back of my head ever since, and a feeling I never want to relive.”
Stewart also has benefited this season from the addition of a new assistant coach that’s approximately his same size, which in turn has enhanced his training.
“That’s what we were missing for him — being able to bring that guy in so that (Stewart) had someone who could smack him around, but at the same time teach him as he was going,” Freeman said.
It all has contributed to a strong senior campaign for Stewart, who is sporting a 28-5 record with victories at both the Willie C. Stewart Invitational in Tacoma and the Island Invitational on Bainbridge Island.
Stewart hopes that a trip to the Tacoma Dome is next.
“It’s been my goal since eighth grade,” he said. “That’s when I knew I wanted to be there. I want to be on the podium, but I really just want to be at state. … Qualifying this weekend would mean everything to me.”
Either way, Freeman will be a proud coach.
“When you can give back to something like that, it’s awesome,” Freeman said of his senior’s officiating contributions. “I’m proud of him for being a wrestler, but doubly for being able to step out into a hard spot like that as an official.”