Chad Ripke wasn’t entirely sure what he had when he walked into the Freeman wrestling room for the first practice of the 2017-18 season.
“If you looked at this group back in November, you wouldn’t have expected them to get where they got,” he said.
For starters, there were just 20 kids to start the season. A couple of injuries here, another couple there and that number dropped to 14 by season’s end.
Those aren’t the kinds of numbers you want when you have to wrestle Deer Park in a league match. But the Scotties did, and Brandon Iris pinned his opponent in 48 seconds to help set a 37-32 decision.
Hunter Nees needed just 15 seconds to pin his opponent to help Freeman beat Colville, 39-27.
Freeman won the Northeast A League regular season title. Deer Park, with a much deeper bench, won the state championship, edging second-place Colville. Freeman finished third at state with six wrestlers.
Six wrestlers; six medals. Four of the six wrestled in a state championship match. Logan Holt came home with a state title at 138 after beating his teammate, Nolan Doloughan, in the final.
When you look at it in the context of numbers, those six wrestlers Ripke took to the state Class 1A state wrestling meet at the Tacoma Dome were 45 percent of his team.
On Friday in Tacoma, the Scotties were 12-0. All six wrestlers won their first two matches and opened Saturday’s action in the quarterfinals of their respective weight divisions. On Saturday? All six reached the semifinals.
“My coaches and I were looking around wondering if we should go out and buy lottery tickets,” Ripke said.
Nees ended up losing in the final at 120 pounds and Iris lost a 5-2 decision to John Knight of Colville in the 182 title match. Garrett Trevino lost his semifinal to the eventual state 220-pound champion, but rallied and won the third-place match.
Cody Tarandico brought home the fifth-place medal at 170 pounds, which speaks volumes about his journey through the Freeman wrestling room.
Tarandico didn’t take up the sport until his sophomore year, and he missed most of his junior year with a thumb injury.
Then again, Freeman wrestling has been impressive now for five seasons. Five seasons, five top-10 state finishes, including a state team title at the end of the 2014-15 season.
But this one, this third-place finish?
This one means something more.
Anything approaching a normal high school year changed when a student brought a gun to school, shot and killed sophomore Sam Strahan and wounded three girls.
“September 13 changed things,” Ripke said. “I will never know what these kids were going through on the inside.”
Ripke said he tried to make his practice room a sanctuary for his wrestlers – a place where they could be safe and where they could lose themselves in the workouts and concentrate on getting better every day.
“There were days where I would have a rough day, but I always looked forward to practice,” Ripke said. “I love these kids. They always made me feel better to be around them.”
The shooting hit at the heart of the team.
Nees, a senior, entered the season as a three-time state placer – Ripke calls him the best wrestler the school has produced.
“His sister (Emma) was one of the girls who was shot,” Ripke said. “Who knows what was going through his head all season long. And then to have a reminder just before state …”
A gunman walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14 and killed 14 students and three adults the day before Ripke and his team left for Tacoma.
Human beings, let alone teenagers, aren’t designed to deal with events like this. Active shooter drills should never be part of a school curriculum.
It says a great deal about the community surrounding Freeman and the spirit of the young athletes at the school that they have come together to support one another.
And it says something about the healing that can be found in sport.
Freeman reached the state football playoffs and the Scotties volleyball team, which had team members wounded in the shooting, placed fifth at state.
The boys basketball team is on track to reach the state tournament, where the Scotties have placed second the past two years. They play Cascade Christian at University High School on Friday. The girls basketball team faces Montesano in a regional game Saturday at Tumwater High School.
“This is a special place,” Ripke said. “And these are special kids.”
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