Stanwood’s Ben Woolman (white shirt) and Isaac Ortega (black shirt) receive instruction from Spartans caoch Ray Mather on Thursday during the Center Circle Wrestling Camp at Oak Harbor High School. (Jim Waller / Whidbey News Group)

Stanwood’s Ben Woolman (white shirt) and Isaac Ortega (black shirt) receive instruction from Spartans caoch Ray Mather on Thursday during the Center Circle Wrestling Camp at Oak Harbor High School. (Jim Waller / Whidbey News Group)

Wrestlers get a chance to push their limits, build bonds

Over 220 wrestlers from 40 high schools across the state attended Center Circle Wrestling Camp.

OAK HARBOR — Two hundred and twenty wrestlers, male and female, from 40 high schools across the state, descended on Oak Harbor High School this week for the third annual Center Circle Wrestling Camp.

Their experience level spanned the full spectrum, from first-year wrestlers all the way up to national champions who have been on the mat for most of their lives.

The camp, which began Sunday and concluded Friday, seemed to have aspects that appealed to all of them.

Center Circle was founded by Edmonds-Woodway High School coach Brian Alfi and Squalicum High School coach Rob Zabel, and the 2018 edition was presided over by 16 counselors and visiting clinicians that include current and former NCAA champions and current college coaches.

“We had been to other camps and there were always certain things that we didn’t like,” said Alfi, who was on his own as camp director Thursday while Zabel, a former Snohomish head coach, was tending to a family matter.

“We’re both pretty Type-A, and if it’s not your camp you can’t really control the clinician list and how things are run. We decided to jump in and do it the way we thought would be best for our kids. I don’t know if we thought it would get this big this quick, but I think we’ve created something of substance and value at a good price point for coaches.”

The cost of $375 per camper includes three meals per day catered by Serendipity, a Langley-based company, and helps offset the cost of bringing clinicians such as Isaiah Martinez, a two-time NCAA champion (2015, 2016) and four-time finalist (2015-2018) at the University of Illinois, to Oak Harbor.

Martinez said seeing wrestling of the highest caliber up close and personal is the most important benefit of a camp like this for the kids in attendance.

“They have to see high-level athletes in front of their eyes, not on a screen,” the Lemoore, Calif., native said. “It doesn’t seem as distant, and it’s more attainable when it’s right in front of you.”

The camp’s enrollment has more than doubled from the inaugural 2016 edition, which drew 100 wrestlers to Meridian High School in Bellingham. Last year’s camp, also at Meridian, swelled to 170 attendees and simply out-grew the facilities at the 1A high school, which only had 12 shower heads for the wrestlers to use after the intense workouts that are a staple of the camp day.

“Oak Harbor and (Wildcats wrestling coach) Larry Falcon have been fantastic,” Alfi said. “They lined up everything and made everything possible for us.”

Oak Harbor’s field house and gym were the base of operations for the camp, which on Thursday featured 11 active mats for technique work, high-intensity drilling and small-scale dual meets that featured camp counselors as coaches of their respective teams.

“The experience level of all the coaches is pretty incredible,” said Stanwood rising senior Ben Woolman. “We’re all really pushing ourselves, and when we go through the fire together we’ll come out stronger.”

A typical day at camp begins with a 6:45 a.m. wake-up and either a morning workout or technique session, followed by breakfast and recovery time.

There’s more drilling and competition from 9:30 a.m. to noon, at which time the campers break for lunch, showers and relaxation in their respective classrooms until 3 p.m.

The energy picks up in the afternoon with two hours of intensive training, which involves near-constant movement from one drill or live match to the next, with some calisthenics built in.

“The coaches push you to levels you didn’t think you could get to,” Marysville Pilchuck rising senior Tanner Lauzon said. “You tell yourself you have to get through it, and that’s what gets you through it.”

After dinner, there are more mini-duals and fun competitions before the whole camp assembles in Oak Harbor’s commons for a motivational speech from one of the visiting clinicians.

“They talk a lot about setting goals for yourself and other important things for anyone who wants to be successful in wrestling, but in life too,” said Marysville Pilchuck rising junior Cayden White.

Lights go out at 11:15 p.m., and few campers have difficulty finding sleep.

For Chiawana coach Jack Anderson and the 22 Riverhawks wrestlers that made the 308-mile trip from Pasco to attend Center Circle, the biggest takeaway will be the camaraderie forged by a group of young wrestlers forced to get to know each other while bunking in a classroom together for a week.

“We have a pretty young team, so this is a great opportunity for team-bonding for us,” said Anderson, whose younger brother, Jordan, is the head coach at Kennewick’s Kamiakin High School and recommended making the trip to Center Circle.

“It’s been even more than we hoped and better. The level of teaching is outstanding and I haven’t seen a camp with this close of a counselor-to-camper ratio. I’ve seen kids go from being strangers to being good friends, and hopefully that will continue into the school year and into the season.”

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