MUKILTEO — The will to be elite is the biggest strength and the biggest weakness of Kamiak senior wrestler Ally de la Cruz.
She has a good chance to become the most decorated female high school wrestler Snohomish County has ever produced because of it, but she has suffered from the pressure that accompanies it.
“The biggest thing with me is the mental game,” said de la Cruz, upon entering Mat Classic XXX, where she’ll try to defend a state title in a lower weight class, dropping from 155 to 140.
“I’ve struggled with it a lot, with pressure. Just knowing that there’s always someone out there training to beat me. That adds pressure. Sometimes I really let the pressure get to me, and it’s something that I try not to think about.”
At her first state tournament, de la Cruz cruised into the semifinals at 140 pounds, but during a 12-2 defeat to Port Townsend’s Chloe Rogers, behind in a match for the first time in a great while, pressure won a battle.
“It was the only time I’ve seen her break a little bit,” said Kamiak assistant coach John Baldwin, who spent a lot of time with de la Cruz in her first years at Kamiak since she was the only girl in the program.
“It went from 3-2 to 10-2 really quick. She just fell apart.”
She recovered from that loss and advanced to the finals as a sophomore, where Grandview’s Desiree Zavala became the third female four-time state champion in state history by pinning de la Cruz in the third period.
That defeat begat a 35-0 junior season, a campaign that ended with de la Cruz fulfilling a prophecy made by Knights head coach Bryan Stelling four years earlier in becoming the first wrestling state champion (male or female) in Kamiak history.
“I think the biggest thing I saw was that she had so much heart, and she could wrestle,” said Stelling, who also runs the district’s middle school program. “I would teach her something and she would pick up the technique so quickly.”
de la Cruz’s mat acumen comes from wrestling since fourth grade. Her family lived in Zillah at the time, and the string of small towns along I-82 between Yakima and the Tri-Cities have long been passionate wrestling communities.
“My best friend wrestled and her dad was the coach,” de la Cruz said. “I started going to practices with her, not out of a love for the sport, but just because I wanted to hang out with my friend. I became more competitive with it and it became something I wanted to do in seventh grade.”
That’s when de la Cruz moved to Mukilteo and attended Harbour Pointe Middle School, where Stelling coached.
“In one of my first days of practice we did a takedown line and I felt like the coolest person ever because I went through a whole bunch of boys before getting taken out,” she said.
As the only girl in the Knights’ program once she got to high school, de la Cruz had to wrestle boys more often than she does now because of a paucity of female competitors, a fact that also speaks to the growth of girls’ wrestling during her prep career.
“When I was wrestling boys on varsity, I lost almost every match, and I got a lot of matches,” she said. “The girls tournaments I went to boosted my self-confidence. I realized I was a lot better than I thought.”
Even as she continued to improve, de la Cruz resisted giving up her roles on Kamiak’s swimming and track and field teams to dedicate herself solely to wrestling.
de la Cruz lettered in swimming all four years for Knights coach Chris Erickson, serving a utility role and earning captain’s honors this past fall.
That’s also true in track and field, where she pole vaults and throws the javelin and shot put for the Knights. de la Cruz is set to leave Kamiak with 12 varsity letters and having captained all three of her teams.
It’s uncommon for a wrestler as decorated as de la Cruz not to compete in freestyle and/or Greco-Roman tournaments outside of high school.
“I know I’m one of the only top state placers not to do freestyle and all that, and maybe I could be a lot better if I did, but just never have,” she said.
de la Cruz laughed when she found herself ranked in a national poll, and hers was the only name that had “No records” for freestyle accolades.
Her wrestling career will end on Saturday at Mat Classic XXX in the Tacoma Dome. There have been offers to wrestle collegiately, but de la Cruz has more she wants to accomplish.
“I was never going to wrestle in college,” she said. “It’s never been part of my plan.”
That includes pursuing a course of study and eventual career in emergency medicine at a service academy. She has applied to the United States Air Force Academy and Naval Academy, preferring the latter should she be accepted to both.
But all that can wait until after this weekend’s state tournament.
de la Cruz will enter Mat Classic with one official loss against 20 wins, a defeat that came against Mariner’s Rowland Whited as part of a boys’ varsity match on Dec. 14.
That doesn’t include two losses in close decisions against Glacier Peak’s Kiley Hubby — a sophomore who might rival de la Cruz for most decorated area girls wrestler by the time her career ends — in exhibition matches at a scramble hosted by Everett this winter.
Hubby was 10 pounds heavier than de la Cruz at the time, and Baldwin said the scramble grouped competitors into four-athlete round-robin pods based on ability level and weight class.
The defeats served as a wakeup call to de la Cruz, who Baldwin says was suffering from a bout of “senioritis” at the time.
“It helped me get refocused, for sure. I wasn’t mentally ready,” she said. “Going up against her helped me deal with my mental things, and my biggest challenge was turning a fear of losing into wanting to win. I got in there and wrestled my best, but it was humbling.”
In the Tacoma Dome this weekend, de la Cruz will compete with Baldwin in her corner, as he’s been for all but one match she has wrestled in a Kamiak singlet.
“I don’t know what I’d do without him,” she said.
Placing this weekend would make de la Cruz just the second four-time state placer among Snohomish County girls, joining Lake Stevens’ JoMae Alewine, who placed fourth, third, second and first from 2007-2010. Those were also the first four years that a girls championship was awarded at Mat Classic.
She’ll have Team de la Cruz cheering from the Tacoma Dome stands. The “Team” is a vocal group of friends and family members who support her everywhere she competes, and the squad will be out in force as she attempts to join the pantheon of Washington’s greatest female wrestlers.
de la Cruz has made a career out of responding to setbacks vigorously, with a response of excellence.
Can’t stop now.
Can’t let the pressure win.