Egged on by her teammates and coaches, Abby Lees reluctantly climbed two flights of stairs to hang the Washougal banner on the top balcony at the Tacoma Dome.
The ritual to break in the freshman turned into an impressive event of foreshadowing. During the next two days of wrestling competition, Lees scaled the Mat Classic mountain with a refusal to lose.
She defeated Nooksack Valley’s Kylee Dekoekkoek in overtime 6-4 in her first match Friday. Lees then pinned Kendra Maxfield, of Emerald Ridge, with five seconds left on the clock in the final round.
This was just a taste of things to come. Lees came back to the dome Saturday, and outlasted Warden’s Aneisa Gonzalez in a match that went to three overtimes before the young Panther walked off the mat with a 6-4 victory.
As a freshman, Lees earned the opportunity to wrestle for the 155-pound state championship medal. She scored the first takedown of the match, but seasoned senior Megan Johnson, of Tumwater, escaped and took Lees down to the mat before the first round ended.
Johnson fought an aggressive Lees off at every turn and wrecked her championship dream with a 6-2 victory. After the match, Lees struggled to come up with the right words to describe her dramatic rise to the title match. It didn’t matter that she’s just a freshman. It didn’t matter that she lost to a senior. This was for the state championship, and she was heartbroken over the result.
“What I love is that she’s mad. That’s the heart of a champion, right there,” said head coach Heather Carver. “I’ve known Abby for a long time. Even as a freshman, she believed in her heart that she could do this. She won two matches in overtime to prove to everybody how bad she wanted this. So skills, check. Heart, check. How could I not be ecstatic?”
This was the third time Lees wrestled Johnson this year. The first match between the two was a washout, but the rematch was closer. When the two rivals tangled one more time in the state championship match, the freshman was giving the senior a run for her money.
“The first time, I got whupped. This time, it was for first place and I really wanted to win,” Lees said. “Thankfully, she’s a senior. I don’t have to worry about her any more.”
Losing out on a state championship medal can be as heartbreaking as not getting the opportunity to wrestle for one. Although the Washougal girls lost critical matches at the Mat Classic, they still wound up in sixth place overall against 98 other teams from around the state.
“It’s exciting,” said junior Haven Camden. “Only three girls got medals, but we stayed on the board and even moved up.”
A variety of illnesses wiped out most of Camden’s season, but she came back in time to help the Panthers become sub-regional and regional champions. She separated her shoulder during the quarterfinal match at state, but fought through the pain and beat two opponents for fourth place at 130 pounds.
“Haven wrestled smart. She was outthinking and outworking her opponents,” Carver said. “She just sucked it up and did it for the team. Without her, we would be up on that leaderboard.”
Senior captain Erin Locke couldn’t catch a break. She lost to Granger’s Alejandra Rodriguez 4-3 in the quarterfinals, pinned Winlock’s Hannah Randall to guarantee a medal, but then lost her last two matches and had to settle for eighth place at 137 pounds.
Coach Carver will never question Locke’s heart. She never missed a practice or a meet in four years of wrestling for Washougal. She also left a strong impression on the younger Panthers.
“I felt honored to wrestle with Erin and these other seniors before they graduated,” Camden said. “I’m excited to carry on the torch they passed down to us. It means a lot to me.”
Lees was already wrestling in the jungle with Panthers when she was in seventh grade. This year, it was for real. When it came down to the last round of high school wrestling in Washington, she was on that mat fighting for those Panthers.
“It took a lot of hard work to get here, and now I’m going to work a hundred times harder,” Lees said. “I hope that we’re successful, and that we can get higher than sixth next time.”