Mason Phillips stood on a wrestling mat in his home gym in Stanwood on Feb. 6, 2016, one of perhaps six people in the building who thought the sophomore had any chance of beating Arlington’s Jeremy Nygard in the sub-regional championship match that was about to begin.
By rights, any faith in Phillips’ success would be wishful thinking, given that he had missed the entire previous season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and a month of the current campaign as Stanwood was forced to forfeit four conference matches.
Nygard, a senior, was virtually untouchable that entire winter, and — most importantly — during the entirety of the five years the two had trained together at Mount Vernon’s Vandit Wrestling Academy. By his own admission, Phillips had never gotten the better of his friendly rival.
According to Phillips, Nygard didn’t seem too anxious before the match.
“When I was warming up, he was laughing and joking with his friends, and I guess he didn’t think he had a lot to be concerned about,” Phillips said earlier this month. “He had only lost one or two matches that whole season, and he was coming into the practice room at Vandit and beating me up every single night.”
But to underestimate Phillips is to slight a then two-time (now three-time) national champion and a competitor who, in a more typical season, would have been just has highly touted as Nygard coming into that district final.
What Nygard may or may not have known that day is that Phillips had been working out three times per day at Vandit and elsewhere since being cleared to return from his ACL tear, traveling around the country to camps and seeking out the best practice partners he could find.
He was buddying up to Justin “Harry” Lester, a Team USA veteran and two-time bronze medalist (2006, 2007) at the world championships, who came to Vandit as a guest clinician and saw something in the kid who wouldn’t stop asking him questions.
Phillips, whose body was turning from boy to man at precisely the right time, had dreams and goals that he would write on scraps of paper and stick to his bathroom mirror.
He was finally healthy and physically ready to dominate, and neither Nygard nor anyone else would stand in his way.
Brad and Joan Phillips decided that if their two sons were going to be beating up on each other, all might be better served if it came in a structured environment instead of the family’s living room.
So it was that 6-year-old Mason Phillips and his brother, Carson, 7, started in wrestling at the Scorpions kids club in Stanwood.
The family was familiar with the sport. Brad wrestled in high school at Mount Vernon and the boys’ older sister, Savannah, 23, wrestled for Stanwood in high school and placed fourth at 106 pounds as a senior to help the Spartans to a second-place finish at Mat Classic in 2012.
When Phillips was in third and fourth grades, he began to separate himself from the rest of his Scorpions clubmates, and it was the first of several times over the course of his wrestling career that he would rise above the pack and need to seek out other talented wrestlers who could push him to the next plateau.
“That’s when I realized I was kind of pulling away from everyone else and becoming one of the better guys in the state,” he said. “I won my first national title when I was in fifth grade, and that’s when I realized that I was pretty good and I kind of knew what I was doing. One of my favorite parts of the day was going to practice, and I knew I wanted to get better and be the best I could be at it.”
Phillips’ search for better competition, after a brief stop at a club in Woodinville, led him to Vandit Wrestling Academy in Mount Vernon, which was founded by former three-time Burlington-Edison state champion Andy Cook in 2011.
“I started working with Mason in October of that year, and from 2012 on we were pretty focused and streamlining for national and world titles,” Cook said. “In the summer of 2012, I took him for the first of our trips to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and to various development camps and world team camps to try to get him around the very best wrestlers and coaches.”
All the high-level exposure paid off. Phillips won his second national title, and first of two with Cook in his corner, as an eighth-grader in 2014.
Time and time again, when asked what makes Phillips unique and tough to beat, his coaches invariably bring up his innate feel for the sport, his feel for his body and that of his opponent’s when they’re on the mat. It can’t be taught, only enhanced.
“Mason just has a really keen eye for the feel of where (his opponent) is going to be, and he sees wrestling really well,” Cook said. “He’s got it slowed down enough in his own mind, where situationally he can see or feel things that most people can’t. He looks really quick and seems to be quick to get to places, but that’s just because he’s there in his mind already. The way we’ve taught him has helped him grow that.”
“He just knows how to set up and stay in good position and be steps ahead of the other guy,” said Ray Mather, Phillips’ coach at Stanwood. “He trains hard, he listens well and he picks up moves fast, but he has this great body awareness where he’s out there touching and can feel where a guys’ moving and stepping and he knows what the counter’s going to be. And he’s only gotten sharper at it, which has made him really jump ahead of everyone around him.”
Phillips returned from nationals to begin his freshman season at Stanwood and was aiming at four state championships. The first year would be the toughest, since he was between 113-120 pounds and hadn’t really grown into his body, but it was within reach.
Until it wasn’t.
“I was at this preseason tournament for high school and kind of dominating everyone in the tournament when I was in a match, stood up and got to my feet with my leg posted out. The kid went to take me down and I folded over the top of my knee and completely tore my ACL.”
After initially believing he could come back in time for the postseason — a la ex-Sedro-Woolley and Ohio State star Derek Garcia in his fourth state championship season — Phillips missed 10 months, by far the longest he had ever been away from the sport he loved since he first stepped on a mat.
Except he wasn’t really away, which made it all the more agonizing.
“Since I thought I was going to be able to come back, I had to be an actual member of the team and sit in practice, go to all the duals and all the tournaments on the weekends. I would have been there watching my brother anyway, but I sat in practice every day and none of it meant anything,” Phillips said. “It was by far the hardest part. There were tons of kids around the state that I knew I had beaten that won state that year and did well at national tournaments. I knew I could beat them.”
“It was heart-wrenching, not just for Mason, but for me and his dad, too,” Joan Phillips said. “He had spent all this time and worked so hard. He went into a period of depression in there, but he saw it as an opportunity that could go one of two ways. He could say the hill’s too high to get to a national level again, or he could have said, ‘Shoot, that really felt good to be at that level and that is who I am. I know how much it’s going to take but I can do it.’”
The first of what would become three tournament finals on three successive Saturdays between Stanwood’s Mason Phillips and Arlington’s Jeremy Nygard went to Phillips in a 9-5 decision.
There would be no joking in the Arlington corner in the next two.
The following Saturday, in the regional final at Marysville Pilchuck, the match was closer as Nygard slowed the tempo and tried to control the pace. But Phillips still won 4-3, for his second-ever victory over his former practice partner.
“We talked about some score strategies, but as far as how he approached the match, I left that up to him,” Mather said of Phillips’ game plan for such a familiar opponent. “He knew what Jeremy could and couldn’t do. The first match Mason got his way, the second time Nygard pressed the issue on more of his stuff, which made it closer. But at state, that was Mason at his most relaxed.”
After two decisions and a pin on his way to the finals, there stood Nygard again, across the mat from Phillips.
“I was pretty confident after beating him the past two weekends, and when I was out there I just tried to wrestle like I knew how,” Phillips said.
After a 6-1 decision, Phillips had his hand raised as an undefeated state champion.
“At the time, it was my greatest accomplishment,” he said. “It wasn’t just winning, but what I had to overcome to get there with the torn ACL, the suspension (which contributed to Stanwood’s low numbers and subsequent forfeits) and the doubt against me.”
“Jeremy Nygard was a huge part of Mason’s success,” Cook said. “He beat Mason like a drum all the way until those three matches. You’ve got to take it before you can dish it out.”
Phillips certainly made an impression on the man in Nygard’s corner for all three of those bouts.
“That young man took everything Jeremy had away from him. We couldn’t believe it,” said Rick Iversen, a coaching Hall of Famer and Arlington’s coach from 2011-2016. “There’s no telling how far he can go. I turned to my coaches and said, ‘We’re going to be watching this kid on the international scene.’ I was duly impressed.”
After the high school season, Phillips reunited with Cook for another go-round on the national circuit, first at the UWW Cadet and University Nationals in Akron, Ohio, where he didn’t even make the quarterfinals.
“It was an eye-opener, but we took what I learned from there and put it into my training for Fargo,” Phillips said.
The Cadet & Junior Nationals are held at the FargoDome in North Dakota’s largest city over a week every July, and represent the pinnacle of wrestling for high school-aged athletes in the United States. Think the McDonald’s All-American Game in basketball or the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in football.
“Kids only show up for tournaments like Fargo if they think they can win,” Phillips said. “It’s on a whole other level (from Mat Classic). A lot of times kids will win a state tournament, go to Fargo and not win a match, or can’t even put up a point. Every high school wrestler in America dreams of winning Fargo.”
Fargo is really two tournaments in one week. On July 17-18, Phillips competed in Greco-Roman wrestling, in which attacks below the waist are prohibited. He won by technical fall in the quarterfinals, by a closer decision in the semis before beating Minnesota’s Tyler Eischens 16-9 in the final for his third national championship.
It was a moment Phillips can barely describe.
“It was crazy,” he said. “The last five years working up at Vandit, that was my top goal, and (Cook) took a college job after that and he left Vandit, so it was our last tournament together. Five years of work together all led up to that moment. To see that all come together was just unbelievable.”
He wasn’t done.
The only Washington wrestler to advance to the quarterfinals in the freestyle bracket, Phillips won by technical fall at both that stage and in the semifinal, without giving up a point in either bout.
In the final, he faced New York’s Jacori Teemer, and after falling in an early hole, Phillips mounted a furious comeback that fell short in a 12-10 loss, preventing him from winning a rare double.
“First off, you have to look at Greco and freestyle as two different sports,” said Lester, who took first in Greco-Roman and second in freestyle in Fargo in 1999. “Within those five days of wrestling, you’re competing in anywhere from eight to 12 matches while having to change your whole mindset in between. It’s like going from tennis to racquetball. You’re swinging a racket in both sports, but it’s a completely different mindset. Having that focus while competing against the best kids in the country is pretty unbelievable.”
The confidence Phillips gained from his victory in Fargo can’t be overstated. That free-and-easy style has carried over into his junior season, in which he is unbeaten with victories over former state champion Carlos Lopez of Selah, returning state finalist Gavin Rork of Arlington and returning state placer Cole Anderson of Jackson, the latter two via technical fall.
He has been taken down only once, by Anderson in the final of the Everett Classic, which he won 19-4 via technical fall.
“I have the mindset that I’m a national champion. No one in Washington should touch me,” Phillips said. “I want to make sure no one I wrestle ever wants to wrestle me again.”
While Phillips carves a swath toward a seemingly inevitable second consecutive state championship, he is already eyeing his next challenges. He made an official visit to 2015 national champion Ohio State earlier this season and has Oregon State, Fresno State and Air Force on his list.
“I want to make the Cadet world team for the U.S., and that tournament is in June,” he said. “I want to wrestle in college at the Division I level. I’d like to win a college national title, which I think I’m capable of doing. I’d like to wrestle internationally after college and maybe make an Olympic team.
“There’s always something more I’m trying to achieve.”