You root for guys like Avery Sundheim.
The East Valley wrestler and his teammates will brave the winter blizzard that has embraced the state to vie for a state championship at Mat Classic beginning Friday.
Being a third-place finisher a year ago isn’t what makes Sundheim stand out in this year’s 32-wrestler field at 126 pounds.
“He’s just an amazing kid,” EV coach Craig Hanson said. “He is probably one of the nicest kids I have ever coached. In school, he works with our special needs room – he did that both last year and this year. We have a program called ‘Yes I Can’ and he’s one of our peer tutors. He helps out with all of our kids with disabilities, and they have a variety of disabilities.
“But more than that, he just thinks about others on the team. He asks all the time, ‘Do you think so-and-so can use a little help?’ ”
Hanson has been a special ed teacher at East Valley for more than three decades, so someone like Sundheim holds a special spot in his heart.
It’s a spot he occupies naturally.
“My mom is a social worker and she works at a community center, where she works with special needs people,” Sundheim explains. “It’s just something that I’ve always done. I’m just doing what my mom does.”
Sundheim began the season wrestling at 132 for the Knights, with teammate Brennon McDermott at 126. At midseason both dropped a little weight: Sundheim settled in at 126, where the junior is ranked No. 2 in the state in Class 2A. McDermott is at 120, where the senior is ranked No. 4.
This weekend Sundheim is seeded No. 2 where, if the tournament follows form, he will wrestle top-ranked Haiden Drury of Toppenish in the finals.
“I wrestled him last year in the regional finals,” Sundheim explained. “He’s really good – he’s really quick. We both have similar styles. He beat me something like 7-2.”
After placing second in the regional, Sundheim lost in the state semifinals at 120 last year, just missing a rematch in the final but earning a third-place medal.
“Avery is just a Steady Eddie kind of a kid,” Hanson said. “You get the best from him every time he steps on the mat. He’s a very methodical wrestler. He doesn’t get worked up. If he panics, he doesn’t show it. Part of the thing that helps him is that he thinks things through. At the end of the match, especially in a tight match and he’s behind, he can turn the heat up and get the job done.”
This year’s Mat Classic will be different from every other state wrestling tournament the state has ever held.
Winter weather last weekend forced the WIAA to cancel each of the state’s regional tournaments. Instead, wrestlers who qualified for their regional tournament were seeded into the state field. Instead of a field of 16, each weight class will host 32 wrestlers.
“We’re going to have the largest high school state tournament in the nation,” Hanson said. “I’m really hoping that everyone will see just how exciting it is to have so many kids entered that they’re going to want to keep the tournament like this.
“We’ve been pushing this for a long time. We’ve had proposals in a couple of times and, at one point, we were close to getting it passed.”
That’s just step one, the long-time wrestling coach said.
Eliminating regional tournaments is just a first step, and Hanson and others have a great idea for what can fill that weekend-before-state time slot.
“We’ve been pushing for a state dual-meet championship for a long, long time,” he said. “We could have a dual-meet championship that weekend and then do individual state championships the next.
“We’ve been hosting the Dream Duals every year and it’s just not the same thing. It’s not like having a state dual tournament. You don’t always get the top teams to come compete.”
Ironically, this year Hanson has perhaps the smallest group of wrestlers he’s ever had. After years of never having to forfeit a weight class in dual match, the Knights have had several this season.
“It’s been strange that way,” Hanson said. “I had two kids break their leg this year – I’ve never had a kid break their leg in a match before. Neither one had anyone fall on them. Both times they just twisted wrong. We thought both of them had a high-ankle sprain and we didn’t know there was a broken bone until they were checked out and had X-rays taken.”
Still, the Knights have had a solid tournament squad and Sundheim has been a leader there, too.
“We have good competition in the wrestling room,” he said. “We have a big group of assistant coaches and they make sure each of us is getting what we need.”
The week before the state meet is always a bit different from the norm.
“It’s mostly just about weight management,” Hanson said. “We get in enough work so that the kids can keep their metabolism up and they can maintain weight.”
Winter weather challenges that goal, however. Road conditions can cause late starts to the school day and Hanson warns his wrestlers who attend his optional early-morning workouts to always check the local news to see when school starts on that day.
Sundheim said he keeps focused on getting in the work he needs to prepare for state.
“I’m not thinking too much about who I will be wrestling right now,” he said. “I will do that later on, maybe on the drive over. I just want to make sure I get in the work I need every day in the room.”
Last year’s loss to Drury got some early analysis, however.
“When you lose to a good wrestler like him, you want to go back and study the match and see where you can do something different,” he said. “My coaches and I studied that film once we got home last year.”
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