Anyone who spends any length of time around Mason Phillips can readily identify the confident determination in the decorated 17-year-old wrestler.
The way he talks about what he wants to accomplish in the sport is similar to his performances on the mat — steady, but always clearly in control.
So it was not hyperbole for him to say that after winning his second consecutive state championship at Mat Classic on Feb. 18 in Tacoma, he would take exactly one day off. As one might expect, Phillips spent the day “sleeping and eating.”
But the next day, he snapped right back into training mode, going for runs and lifting weights as if the season never ended — because it hadn’t. He was simply preparing for the next step of his journey, which would take him to Akron, Ohio, on Feb. 28, where he would live and train with Justin “Harry” Lester, a Team USA veteran and two-time World bronze medalist (2006 and 2007).
Phillips withdrew from Stanwood High School before he left, and is taking a full course load of online classes through Apex Learning, a Seattle-based company that offers a “virtual” high school experience that accommodates students who are traveling during the school year.
Phillips plans to be in Akron until the middle of June, when he’ll come home to Stanwood and plot his next moves. He intends to return to Stanwood to begin the 2017-18 term, and wrestle for the Spartans in his senior season.
Stanwood athletic director Tom Wilfong confirmed in an e-mail to The Herald that Phillips is taking classes online.
“He is just doing an alternate learning experience like Running Start or home-schooling, and plans to be back in the classroom next fall. His (WIAA) eligibility will not be affected,” Wilfong said.
Phillips said he and his family worked with Wilfong and Stanwood counselor Tricia Tayon to make sure his Apex classes would not negatively impact NCAA eligibility as well, because collegiate wrestling is another signpost on his journey to wrestling glory.
In Ohio, Phillips works out at Lester’s club, Top Notch Training, practicing with 30 other elite high-school and middle-school aged wrestlers, in the evenings. During the day, he lifts weights and runs on his own around working on schoolwork.
“I just picked up on Apex where I left off at Stanwood,” Phillips said. “I’m ahead on all my credits.”
He’s also picking up some graduate-level wrestling instruction, not only from Lester and the coaches at Top Notch, but in weekly trips to the Ohio Regional Training Center an hour away in Columbus, where he shares a practice room with Ohio State stars Kyle Snyder, Nathan Tomasello and Myles Martin.
Each has won an NCAA championship and Snyder took Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro last summer to go along with his World championship in 2015. Phillips is looking to follow in their footsteps, at least internationally.
“It’s pretty cool to be side by side with world champs and Olympic champs, doing the same workouts as them,” Phillips said.
Ohio State is one of the colleges interested in Phillips, along with Oregon State, Fresno State and Air Force. He said he doesn’t plan to make a decision on college until next year.
Phillips said his trip to Ohio had been planned for a while — ever since Andy Cook, his longtime coach at Vandit Wrestling Academy in Mount Vernon, left in March of 2016 to take a coaching job at Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen.
“I didn’t have anyone in the area that I could do anything with,” he said. “I had outgrown all the coaches where we live and I needed better coaching and better workout partners. In order to continue to improve, I had to do some traveling.”
Enter Lester, who in addition to running Top Notch training is the wrestling coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, which may be best known as the alma mater of NBA superstar LeBron James.
“I just want him to have the best training situation possible for as long as he can,” Lester said. “He’s seen the different type of intensity that we train with out here that he just doesn’t see on a normal basis. He’s working out with guys who have also won multiple state championships, guys who are multiple state placers and national placers. And he’s seeing that day in and day out. He really has to challenge himself, and he’s doing great. He’s a special talent.”
Phillips will be putting that training into performance at a pair of upcoming tournaments, both among the nation’s most prestigious.
First, he’ll compete at the Journeymen World Classic in Schenectady, New York on April 22-23, an invitational tournament that boasts a freestyle field equal or tougher than the competition at the Cadet and Junior Nationals in Fargo, North Dakota. Phillips was the runner-up at 132 pounds in Fargo last year, and will be wrestling at 138 this spring.
From there, Phillips flies to Las Vegas to compete in both freestyle and Greco-Roman at the U.S. Open Western Junior Regional at the South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa from April 25-29.
Those tournaments all lead up to the United World Wrestling (UWW) Cadet & University Nationals from June 1-4 in — of all places — Akron, Ohio.
“It’s five minutes from where he’s training now,” Lester said.
Phillips would have to win in Akron to achieve his goal of representing the United States at the 2017 Cadet World Championships in Athens, Greece, Sept. 4-10.
“Getting on that World team is going to be the hardest part, but if he can put it together that week (June 1-4), he has a very good chance of being a world champion,” Lester said.
Lester is married with two daughters but considers Phillips a part of his family, and those feelings are reciprocal.
“He’s only been here a short while, but it’s just been natural,” Lester said. “He’s another person in our house that we care for, and that we want to see succeed. And he has an amazing family, who have put their son in the best situation that they can to set him up to succeed for the rest of his life.”
Lester said that he, as a high school junior in 2000, was nowhere near mature enough to make the sacrifices Phillips has made to improve.
“It just shows you that a lot of kids his age aren’t nearly as focused as he is,” Lester said. “He’s really focused on honing his skills and getting better at wrestling and in life. It takes a special person to do a lot of his or her education on their own. It just shows how strong he is as a person, all the way around.”