For Stanwood’s Mason Phillips, this weekend’s United World Wrestling (UWW) Cadet and University Nationals in Akron, Ohio, represents the carrot he’s been chasing at the end of the proverbial stick for almost a year.
Since appearing in the freestyle and Greco-Roman finals — and winning Greco — at USA Wrestling’s Junior Nationals in Fargo, North Dakota, last July, Phillips capped an undefeated junior season at Stanwood High School with his second state championship and spent more than three months training and living with Ohio-based coach Justin “Harry” Lester with this weekend’s tournament always on his mind.
High-level tournaments such as the Journeymen World Classic and USA Wrestling’s Western Junior Regional in April were simply tune-ups for Phillips on the road back to Akron.
Waiting for only the winners of Phillips’ 63-kilogram (139 pound) brackets in freestyle and Greco-Roman are spots on the team that will represent the United States at the World Cadet Wrestling Championships in Athens, Greece — the ancestral home of the sport — in early September.
Making the World team would be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Phillips, but he described his mindset as more excited than nervous in a phone conversation Wednesday.
“I used to get pretty nervous for these big tournaments,” he said. “But this time around I’m just more excited to wrestle than anything. I think coming out here and practicing with kids who are at a high level on a daily basis has helped with my confidence a little bit.”
The fact that the tournament is being hosted by the University of Akron, at the Stile Athletics Field House, mere minutes from where Phillips has been living and training, is pure coincidence.
“It’ll be nice to sleep in my own bed instead of a hotel,” he said.
Phillips will begin the weekend with the Greco-Roman competition, which will be completed Friday. Freestyle will be contested Saturday up to the best 2-of-3 final round, which is scheduled for Sunday.
“I don’t know who’s going to be in my weights — I decided not to look at that — but I think I have a chance to win both of them,” Phillips said. “I used to train only freestyle, because it was kind of hard to find someone who could show me specific techniques in Greco other than ‘don’t touch the legs.’ But with Harry’s Greco background, we’ve been training in a little of both and my Greco’s really gotten better.”
Lester, a 2012 U.S. Olympian and eight-time World team member, said Phillips is as physically and mentally ready as can be for this weekend.
“He’s looking tough as usual. He’s stronger, his weight is good and he’s tightened up a lot of things on the mat. He’s there. We’ll see what happens when he gets on the mat, but if he just wrestles his style and pace and limits his mistakes, he’ll be right there.”
In tournaments such as these, where many of the 40-odd participants (brackets won’t be finalized until Friday’s weigh-in) are all so close in terms of talent, there isn’t much that separates the competitors.
“Any mistake at any time can cost Mason a match,” Lester said. “Seventy-five percent of his matches will be against guys of the same skill level as him and everyone there is driven to make a World team. It comes down to who has trained the hardest and whoever shows up that day and sticks to his game plan physically and mentally. And I don’t know of too many kids training harder than Mason. It’s going to be a long road, but it’s something he can do. He has his mind set on making this World team, and he’s driven right now.”
Intermat, a national wrestling publication, lists Phillips as a contender for both the freestyle and Greco titles in its preview of the event, while tabbing Pennsylvania’s Sammy Sasso, last year’s runner-up, as the favorite in Phillips’ weight class. Sasso is ranked seventh in the Class 0f 2018 by Intermat, which also includes the unranked Phillips.
As focused and driven as Phillips is, he has maintained perspective, and won’t allow himself to be shattered if this weekend doesn’t end with him atop the podium.
“Oh, it would be disappointing not to win, but you can’t just sit around and wish you would have done things differently,” he said. “The only way to get better is to just learn from things and move on to what’s next.”
Win or lose, this weekend’s tournament marks the end of Phillips’ time in Ohio, at least for the foreseeable future.
Phillips’ parents, Brad and Joan, will be traveling to Akron to cheer for Mason, and he will return to Washington on June 7, for the first time since late February.
Lester, his wife and two daughters have welcomed young wrestlers into their home before on several occasions, but never for as long as Phillips has stayed with them this winter and spring.
“It started out as, ‘I’ll just be in the guest room and come down to eat,’ but now it’s almost like I’m part of the family and I’ve been living here the whole time,” Phillips said.
“It was a no-brainer for us,” said Lester of opening his home to Phillips. “For a kid that would actually want to be away from his family and friends for so long, which most kids never would, for a chance to get better, there’s no way I wasn’t going to give him that opportunity to get better.”
Phillips said he still plans to return to Stanwood for his senior year, and hopes to end his Spartans wrestling career as an undefeated, three-time state champion.
“It’s been a nice break from Washington,” he said, “but I love home.”
Phillips has had some company from Washington in his last week in Akron. Dominic Damon, a sophomore at Nathan Hale and Phillips’ longtime training partner at Vandit Wrestling Academy in Mount Vernon, has been staying with the Lesters this week and will compete over the weekend at the weight class below Phillips.
Damon finished sixth at 138 pounds in 3A at Mat Classic in February.
When the lights come on in Akron on Friday, Phillips said he will be relaxed and comfortable.
“I have to try and have fun,” he said. “It’s good to be serious, but if you’re overthinking everything, you’re not going to be yourself. I just want to have fun, relax my mind and do what I do.”