Participants wait to sign up for matches prior to last week’s girls wrestling scramble at Snohomish High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Participants wait to sign up for matches prior to last week’s girls wrestling scramble at Snohomish High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Scenes from a high school girls wrestling scramble

The rapid yet uneven growth of girls wrestling has forced coaches to get creative to compete.

SNOHOMISH — From beginning to end, the girls wrestling event hosted by Snohomish High School last Wednesday night was emblematic of the sport’s uneven growth, both locally and statewide.

The original format of the event called for three dual meets (Edmonds-Woodway plus single wrestlers from Mountlake Terrace and Meadowdale vs. a combined Snohomish/Glacier Peak team, Edmonds-plus vs. Arlington, and Arlington vs. Snohomish/Glacier Peak) and a concurrent scramble (a continuous run of exhibition matches aimed at getting mat time for wrestlers not in the varsity dual lineups).

However, the schedule was altered twice on the fly.

Forty minutes before the scheduled 6 p.m. start of the event, Arlington coach Jim Smoots, Edmonds-Woodway coach Terry Ray, Snohomish coach Dan Mundell and Glacier Peak coach Jordan Gere huddled and decided that the five wrestlers from Shorewood, which originally planned to compete in the scramble portion of the event, would join with the Edmonds School District team to plug the gaps where there otherwise would have been forfeits. Thus, more wrestlers got competitive matches.

After the first two duals and the scramble concluded around 8 p.m., the coaches huddled again and decided to eliminate the scheduled dual between Arlington and Snohomish/Glacier Peak. It was starting to circulate through the crowd of about 100 spectators that it was beginning to snow in Arlington, and the Eagles already had beaten the Panthers/Grizzlies 66-18 in a home dual on Dec. 18.

Being flexible with the conventions of competition is still the norm for much of the area’s girls wrestling programs outside of Arlington and Everett, each of which can field full dual lineups at all 14 weight classes from within their own schools.

“This season, everything’s been on the fly,” Ray said before Wednesday’s event.

Nevertheless, the goal of the evening was achieved. Each of the 54 wrestlers in the gym wrestled at least two matches.

The wrestlers cheered for their teammates (even the temporary ones) and their opponents with equal sincerity, and chatted while waiting to take the mat against one another.

“It’s so great. It’s all just one big family, and the girls love it,” Mundell said.

A few scenes from Wednesday’s scramble:

A wrestler, a coach and a cheerleader

Snohomish junior 170-pounder Alycia Pidgeon may have had more wrestling matches under her belt than anyone else in the Panthers’ gym Wednesday night.

Jeremy Pidgeon, Alycia’s father and the Panthers’ girls wrestling coach until this season, owns Team Mean MMA, a Snohomish martial arts academy, and started Alycia in submission wrestling when she was 5 years old, she said. Alycia began folkstyle wrestling in seventh grade, is a returning state placer (fifth at 170 pounds) and a two-time participant in the freestyle Cadet/Junior National Championships.

In Snohomish’s dual, Pidgeon registered a first-period pin over Edmonds-Woodway’s Destinee Harris. It was the second time Pidgeon has decked Harris this season, but she had to work for it Wednesday. Harris displayed exceptional strength in bridging out of a pinning predicament three times before succumbing.

Pidgeon won the “Jump On In” tournament at Yelm High School on Dec. 7, and most of her toughest competition this season will come when the Panthers travel to similar weekend tournaments, such as the Lady Huskie Invite in Othello on Jan. 18.

Her main focus Wednesday, as it is during much of the team’s practice time, was to be an auxiliary coach and cheerleader for her less-experienced teammates, alongside fellow Snohomish returning state placers Mikayla Jardine (eighth at 105) and Holly Butler (fifth, 135). It’s a role Pidgeon attacks with fervor.

“I have seen so many girls fall in love with this sport,” she said before Wednesday’s event. “If I can show a newer girl a move in a way that’s easier for her understand from what the coaches are saying, that’s great. It’s really cool to help get the new girls to build up their confidence.”

GP’s Lastala perseveres

Glacier Peak freshman 115-pounder Parker Lastala scored a third-period pin over Hope Ambachew, the only Mountlake Terrace wrestler competing Wednesday, in one of the evening’s most exciting bouts.

Ambachew caught Lastala in a head-and-arm throw right off the opening whistle, but Lastala weathered the storm. The two wrestlers battled back and forth in an intense second period, where each had multiple opportunities to pin the other that weren’t converted.

Lastala persevered, and decked Ambachew with 25 seconds remaining in the match.

“In that moment, you’re just thinking about getting up and out,” Lastala said of her early brush with defeat. “You just have to clear your mind for that millisecond and focus. I wasn’t expecting it (Ambachew’s early attack), but you have to roll with the punches.”

Lastala is in her second year of wrestling under Gere’s tutelage after competing at Valley View Middle School last season as an eighth-grader. Her father, Greg, a former wrestler, convinced her she’d take to the sport.

“I’ve done cross country, softball and soccer, and I haven’t had a stronger bond with my teammates than I have with wrestling,” she said. “I like that about it.”

Gere called Lastala’s performance against Ambachew “a true example of grit” and said the freshman has a high ceiling.

“I think that’s a pretty low bar for her,” he said, when asked if Lastala could develop into a state placer. “She’s a natural athlete and she’s already a student of the sport. It’s fun to watch other matches with her and see her start to analyze what people are doing.”

Wrestling for her school’s rival

Like Ambachew of Mountlake Terrace, Meadowdale junior 135-pounder Farrah Padilla was the only wrestler representing her school Wednesday. Padilla said there are two other girls in the Mavericks’ program, but she’s the only one of the three who has wrestled in competition this season.

Padilla has wrestled as part of Edmonds-Woodway’s team at duals and weekend tournaments all season, even though she practices with Meadowdale’s boys team.

She said the Warriors have welcomed her onto their team.

“At first I was extremely nervous, because that’s our school’s rival, but they’ve taken me in with open arms and we’ve formed friendships, beyond just being teammates,” said Padilla, who went 1-1 Wednesday, pinning Snohomish’s Jay Ledezma and falling via pin to returning Arlington state-placer Tailer Cochran (eighth, 120).

Padilla wrestled for the Rhinos, an Edmonds-based club, from fourth through sixth grade, and for ex-Mavericks coach Brian Boardman at Meadowdale Middle School, but admitted she was too timid to compete in high school until this year.

What changed her mind? “You only live once,” she said.

Padilla, who played varsity volleyball for Meadowdale, echoed the sentiments of many Wednesday when she cited wrestling’s no-cut policy as something that appeals to new athletes.

Padilla said embracing the physicality and aggression inherent in wrestling wasn’t a big hurdle for her, but agreed it’s one of the biggest obstacles new wrestlers.

“It’s not like most sports,” she said. “You’re literally throwing yourself on people. Some people don’t even like touching and mingling with other people.”

Meadowdale doesn’t have a dedicated girls coach, and neither Mavericks boys head coach Josh Knowles nor assistant Daniel Takeuchi were in attendance Wednesday, but Padilla said she doesn’t feel overlooked in the Meadowdale program as the only competitive female.

“We’ll talk about how I did, and I’ll get a pin for every pin that I have in my matches, just like the boys,” she said. “I think it gives me an advantage, to be coached by Knowles in practice and then the Edmonds coaches at matches.”

‘Exciting to see how fast it’s growing’

All of the wrestlers competing at Snohomish on Wednesday night owe a debt of gratitude to Smoots, and not just the wrestlers on his 7-0 Arlington team.

Along with Everett girls coach and Washington State Wrestling Coaches Association Hall-of-Famer Rick Iversen, with whom he won a boys 3A team championship at Arlington in 2016, Smoots helped create the side-by-side dual and scramble format that was used Wednesday and is one of the forerunners of the explosion of girls wrestling in Snohomish County, even though he served as Arlington’s boys coach from 1989-2009. He has led the Eagles’ girls program since 2017.

“Rick and I talked a lot about it, and we decided that a regular dual-meet schedule doesn’t fit because so many of the schools are just starting out. We have done just scrambles and invited many of the smaller (teams), but there’s no team scores kept, and we really wanted to have that dual-meet feel, with the team scores and the excitement of wrestling for your team and your school,” Smoots said. “This way, the teams with bigger numbers can have dual meets, and we’re also running a scramble mat where the junior-varsity girls and anyone else that gets a forfeit can get out and get a match.”

The growth of the Arlington program into a formidable dual-meet force was, according to Smoots, sparked by a 2017 dual meet at which Arlington hosted Lynden on a Friday night that he aggressively promoted.

“It was under the spotlight, and we had music and introductions,” he said. “It was a packed house.”

The buzz generated by that night gained momentum, and Arlington has become, in many ways, the perfect example of where coaches and administrators hope girls wrestling is headed.

“We have girls wrestling at both of our middle schools (Post and Waller) and I’ve proposed that we start separating the girls out, combining the two middle schools, having a girls coach and start going against girls only,” Smoots said. “When parents find out that you’ll be competing against girls only, they’re much more likely to let their daughters wrestle.”

Arlington’s administration also funded a third paid assistant coach position for girls wrestling this season for the first time, equaling what the Eagles’ boys program is afforded. That’s appropriate, given that each team has 30 wrestlers on its roster. All three of Smoots’ assistants — Ali Hendricks, Jordynn Mani and Robin Hernandez — wrestled for him in the girls program at Arlington.

In the next three years, Smoots envisions more schools being able to field their own dual-meet teams without combining with other programs. He said he believes hiring dedicated girls coaches would add to the sport’s legitimacy in the eyes of prospective wrestlers. He also said more parents and young female wrestlers will start to look at the sport as a path to possible college scholarships as participants in one of the nation’s fastest-growing sports. According to a 2018-19 participation study conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), about 21,000 girls were participating in wrestling nationwide.

“Some of the schools up north have been doing this for 8-10 years, but in Wesco it’s brand new,” Smoots said. “It’s exciting to see how fast it’s growing. I couldn’t have imagined it five years ago.”

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