Panther family blossoms by wrestling

Brothers and sisters gain new siblings in the jungle

Jessica, Samantha and Hannah Eakins, and Abby and Tanner Lees are bound by family.

Together, they have blossomed by wrestling their friends and each other inside the Washougal High School jungle gym.

“The wrestling mat is more of a home than our house is,” Jessica Eakins said.

“It’s just a whole bunch of brothers, sisters and cousins sharing this family experience,” Abby Lees added.

Abby Lees wrestled for a state championship medal in the Tacoma Dome as a freshman last February. She also earned second place at a freestyle tournament to qualify for the national team during the summer.

“Second was my place last year. I’m totally going to change that this year,” Abby said. “For the better. I’m not going to be scared anymore.”

The sophomore got this new high school wrestling season started off right by winning a championship medal at the Yelm Invitational Saturday. Her brother, Tanner, also made an impressive debut. The freshman earned a second-place medal Saturday, from a tournament in Estacada, Ore. He lost to a three-time Oregon state finalist.

Jessica Eakins has been to the Tacoma Dome. This year, the senior wants to go out with a state medal. She’s also showing the ropes to her freshman sister, Samantha, and freshman cousin, Hannah.

“I’m looking forward to continuing what our family has been doing,” Jessica said. “I love the support from my mom and dad, brother, sister and cousins. Wrestling is all we have ever known.”

Washougal’s “winning tradition of excellence” in wrestling is built on family. Head coaches John and Heather Carver, also husband and wife, preach this message to the Panthers every single day. It has caught fire in the hearts of senior tri-captains Tanner Baldwin, Bailey Burk and Jesse Reagan.

“Never flop back and give up. No matter how hard it hurts, you just get back up and go,” Burk said. “Wrestling is a lifestyle, not just a sport. It’s not for everyone, but if you can make it through four years of high school, you’ve got something to prove.”

Baldwin and Reagan have traded victories on the mat against each other for years. At the end of day, they both feel like winners because they are making each other better.

“However hard I push myself, that’s how far I’m going to go,” Baldwin said. “If the guy is better than me, he’s better than me. As long as I know I wrestled my best, I can learn from that.”

A spinal injury forced Baldwin out of action at the state tournament. He came into the weight class as the regional champion. Since then, he has strengthened his back muscles and joints through physical therapy at Washougal Sport & Spine. And he sure looks determined on that mat.

“Just wrestle every match like it’s my last,” Baldwin said.

Burk is also back with a vengeance after missing out on the state tournament last season. Together, they hope to help the Panthers win a league or a regional title, and then fulfill their dreams of bringing hardware home from state.

“You come in here with your best friend, you’re not friends on the mat,” Burk said. “We dish out a lot of pain in this room, but at the end of the day, we get better.”