This season, the Snohomish wrestling team has made a habit of saving its best for last.
The Panthers have some of their strongest wrestlers competing in the weight classes that wrestle later in meets. And their wrestlers in the four biggest weight classes are all ranked in the top 10 by washingtonwrestlingreport.com. Snohomish hopes all that’s a good sign for their 12 regional tournament qualifiers.
“Our goal is to get everybody to the state tournament,” Snohomish head coach Rob Zabel said. “… Let’s look at the 12 kids and the two alternates we have and do whatever we can do to get all of these guys to advance this week.”
The heavier weights will be key for Snohomish, where seniors Garrett Stich, Justin Kearney, Tristan Baus and Mario Rojas each rank in the top 10. The wrestlers, who compete from the 182-pound weight class all the way up to 285 pounds, have been a key part of the Panthers’ success this season.
“It’s nice to have kids anywhere, but you find that in all programs. Your good kids kind of end up grouping together,” Zabel said. “Those kids aren’t good by accident. It’s because they’re pushing each other and drilling with each other in practice. When you get a couple good kids the kids around them have to get better.”
Each of the four wrestlers have taken a different path to this year’s 4A Region 1 Tournament, held today at Central Kitsap High School, where they will wrestle for a spot in next week’s Mat Classic.
For Stich, who competes at 182 pounds, this has been the first full season he’s made it through while wrestling for Snohomish. Injuries have held him back.
“I’ve wrestled since I was six but during high school every year I’ve gotten hurt — with my leg, my arm — something’s broke,” Stich said. “This year nothing broke, which is good.”
The senior has suffered a broken ankle, nose and, most recently, his arm when a wrestler landed on it last season at a meet three days before Christmas and “it just snapped in half.”
Last season, Stich could only watch from the side of the mat as his team had a strong breakout year and finished in the top 25 at the 4A state tournament. Stich was happy for his team and cheered them on, but admitted it was “a little depressing” not being able to be wresting with them.
He channeled that frustration into making his senior year a memorable one.
“It’s just determination. I’ve done it my whole life,” Stich said. “I love this sport.”
Count his coach among those incredibly impressed with how Stich has been able to battle back from his injuries.
“How rewarding for that young man who’s really had to battle some adversity,” Zabel said. “It would’ve been really easy for a kid like Garrett to say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. It hurts too much.’ It shows what Garrett’s capable of. He’s such a hard worker, (it’s) nice to see that hard work pay off.”
At 195 pounds, Kearney has been solid for the Panthers all season. Ranked No. 8 in the state, Kearney has had the luck — either good or bad — to wrestle Lake Stevens star Cody Vigoren, the top wrestler in the state at that weight class, twice in the past two weeks.
Vigoren won both times, but those two matches were great experience for Kearney to get right before the biggest matches of the season, Zabel said.
“I’m not sure when the last time we beat (Vigoren) was, maybe his freshman year,” Zabel said. “The way that we’re going to approach it is: ‘this is the kid who’s the best in the state at this weight class. Every chance we get to wrestle him is an opportunity to improve.’”
Snohomish’s top wrestler easily could be Baus, who is ranked No. 3 in the state at 220 pounds. He has lost one match all season — to a wrestler from an Oregon school, prompting Zabel to say, “We don’t really count that one.”
Baus qualified for state at 195 pounds last season and moved up to the 220-pound weight class this year. Zabel said Baus has improved tremendously over the past four years, which is a testament to the senior’s tremendous work ethic.
“Tristan was not always this good. He’s a kid that’s had to work at it,” Zabel said. “His freshman year he couldn’t get in our varsity or JV lineup. I remember thinking after his freshman year, with the way he ended and how dissatisfied he was, I was worried he might never wrestle again.”
However, Baus returned his sophomore year stronger, physically and mentally. He’s continued his drive to get better and hopes to have a strong showing in the postseason. He said it’s a little different this year because he and his Panther teammates are no longer flying under the radar.
“Senior year’s a little different because now a lot of people know me,” Baus said. “I was kind of that underdog last year. Now I guess I’m a target. As for the team, it’s the same way. A lot of our guys were underdogs going in and a lot of our guys are ranked now.”
Rojas, in the heavyweight class at 285 pounds, is another ranked Panther. Currently at No. 9, Rojas also has come a long way in his time wrestling at Snohomish, Zabel said.
“He’s a good young man,” Zabel said. “It’s nice to see good things happening for Mario. I really like his chances in the next two weeks.”
Wyatt Butler (ranked No. 9 at 113 pounds) and Alex Fairhurst (No. 6 at 220) also help power Snohomish, which is No. 9 overall in the team category.
Despite his team’s acclaim, Zabel doesn’t like to think about the rankings.
“I’ve heard that. I try not to pay too much attention to it. I know my kids are pretty good,” Zabel said. “But there are still a couple kids out there. I like them though. I think they’re pretty good.”
Like their coach, the Panthers who are ranked aren’t letting it go to their heads.
“There’s always somebody better than me. Like Tristan,” Stich said. “He beats me up every day in practice. He throws me down. I know I’m not the best out there. I have to get better.”
With everybody relatively healthy for this time of year, Zabel said the Panthers look “geared up and ready to go.” With a group that features 15 seniors — including the girls’ team and the team managers — it’s a very experienced group for Snohomish.
It’s also a tight-knit group.
“I’d use the word ‘family’ more than team,” said senior Keaton Mills, who qualified for regionals in the 126-pound weight class. “I know all the guys in that mat room are guys I can count on during school and out of school, during season and out of season to be there for me. And it’s the same with me for them.”