Wrestling: South Kitsap relishes chance to compete at home for a change

Ringing alarms once sounded at 4 a.m. to wake wrestlers for bus rides across Snoqualmie Pass.

While those long-distance tournament have not been completely phased out, they frequently are replaced with van pools taking competitors less than 15 miles.

Local wrestling tournaments finish Saturday with the annual South Kitsap Invitational. The invite, which features Central Kitsap, Evergreen of Vancouver, Kentlake, Olympia, Olympic, Peninsula, South Kitsap and Timberline, is the last a long line of tournaments in Kitsap County this season.

Last week, there were two in the county alone. Both the Matman Classic in Silverdale and the Island Invitational on Bainbridge have run for decades. CK coach Mike Harter said it is imperative to bring top-tier competition to run a successful tournament.

Sixteen teams participated at Matman, including programs such as Enumclaw, Graham-Kapowsin, Orting, Tahoma and Rogers, while local schools CK, North Mason, Olympic and South also competed.

“We want to show in tournaments that we’re worthy of respect of other schools and other regions,” Harter said.

In December, the annual Olympic Dream Duals were followed the next weekend by the inaugural HammerHead Tournament at the Kitsap Sun Pavilion, which hosted 25 teams.

“Our hope is that HammerHead will continue to grow,” Harter said. “We always want to have our local teams. Having a tournament that size, it needs to be supported locally.”

South coach Chad Nass said staying local makes sense from an economic — and safety — standpoint. The Wolves regularly used to participate in the Tri-State Tournament at North Idaho College along with several other Kitsap schools.

“It’s just so tough to cross the pass at that time of the year,” Nass said. “Let’s see if we can build something that is similar to that on this side of the mountains.”

Kingston coach Bobby Reece II said the HammerHead is not quite Tri-State’s caliber yet, but he said his program benefited from the competition there.

“I think it will take us to a different level,” he said. “That’s the toughest tournament Kingston has wrestled in besides state.”

Some of that relates to the growth of wrestling in the area. Kitsap schools, such as Olympic and South, have successful traditions. Others are building their programs. Two years ago, Bainbridge coach Dan Pippinger had just 12 wrestlers at tryouts. He had 35 this season.

“It just depends on where kids are putting their energy,” he said. “There are so many choices that kids can kind of find where they fit.”

Several coaches attribute the growth of the sport in Kitsap to the Northwest Washington Wrestling Club and others and summer camps. Olympic graduate Ozzie Saxon, who was a four-time All-American at Wartburg College in Iowa, returns to Silverdale every July to host a camp.

“There’s a lot more work going into exposing kids to wrestling,” Pippinger said.

South senior Conner Hartmann said much of it is a result of success. The Wolves have had 11 different wrestlers win state championships. Last year, Olympic’s Brandon Yeik won a 3A state title at 145 pounds.

“There’s more popularity,” Hartmann said. “It’s nice to be able to follow those kids.”

South has won 170 dual-league matches since its last loss against North Thurston in December 1992. But CK led during much of its match against the Wolves in 2009 before falling 39-26. The 2A Olympic League is more balanced with accomplished wrestlers such as Zac Joaquin (112 pounds, North Mason), Cody Yeik (125, Olympic), Bobby Reece III (140, Kingston) and Freddy Rodolf (215, Kingston).

Nass said he likes a blend of local tournaments with those outside of the area. The Wolves participated in the Dec. 29-30 Pacific Coast Tournament and the Jan. 8 Hall of Fame Duals in Moses Lake. The latter competition featured traditional state powers such as Auburn, Lake Stevens, Mead, Moses Lake and Rogers.

“We’re busy every weekend,” Nass said. “We’re trying to see as much of the state as we can.”