As the holiday season approaches, it’s that time of year: Wrestling! … or, so wrestlers thought last season until COVID caused all competitions to be canceled and wrestlers were faced with the challenge of wrestling without touching anyone. And, with the time frozen, it seemed like forever for the wrestlers to be back on the mat, but finally, as the city illuminates with decorative lights everywhere, wrestling teams were also given the green light to wrestle this season. The Titan wrestlers, for the first time in forever, traveled to CAJ (Dec. 2) and ASIJ (Dec. 4) for the season opening exhibition matches.
But, Coach Yabui, in his 9th year has the head coach for the Titans, wasn’t so jolly with the results of these matches, as he commented “CAJ wasn’t very fun and ASIJ was a disaster; we have a lot to learn.” Although these were exhibition matches and it doesn’t “count” as far as official “wins” and “losses” go, the Titans went 6 wins 6 losses against CAJ and only 9 wins and 15 losses against ASIJ. “On a given day, whether it’s an individual tournament or dual meet, I cannot recall a time when lost more matches against ASIJ that last Saturday,” commented Coach Yabui. It wasn’t about the skill level. All teams lost a season last year and lost their seniors last season, so every team was at a disadvantage. But, it was a common problem that St. Mary’s wrestlers tend to have: lack of confidence. Coach Yabui explained “it’s common that St. Mary’s wrestlers tend to get intimidated at first and do not believe in their training, so when they go out, they freeze and let opponents do everything to us; that’s just the type of kids we have at St. Mary’s. But, St. Mary’s wrestlers are the most disciplined, so through time, as they gain confidence, they become very good and most of the time end up on top.”
On top of the “usual” confidence issue, there were several other factors that may have played a role. Co-Captain, Mikhail Titov, suffered a back injury beginning of the season and did not compete. Neither did junior and returning Far East placer, Masaya Toyokawa, due an ankle injury. 2020 Far East silver medalist, Isaac Shane, did not wrestle either. With quality middle school wrestling experience, Kai Sandoval, was a hopeful in his high school debut, but due to a finger injury unrelated to wrestling, he is out for several weeks as well. Several other wrestlers also had some minor injuries and had to miss a few days out of the only 10 days of practice the team had before their first meet.
Another challenge is that the wrestlers must wear masks during competition. The masks themselves theoretically should not decrease oxygen intake, but when it absorbs moisture during wrestling from the sweat and heavy breathing, they tend to stick to the wrestler’s nose and mouth making it harder to breathe or the masks simply decrease in air permeability, according to the WHO.
Then, there was a rule modification. The schools have agreed to eliminate the “par terre” position for these exhibition matches. Par Terre position is wrestling that happens after taking an opponent down to try to pin or score more points by turning the opponent. As the “pin” is the ultimate goal in wrestling, not having par terre was probably the oddest of all changes. The schools explained that this was done to mitigate COVID transmission risks of the wrestlers. “It’s not wrestling anymore when you make that drastic of a change to the rule,” commented Coach Yabui, “that’s like telling basketball you get a point for just dribbling the ball to the other court without shooting the ball, or telling soccer to have 4 goals with 2 balls at once for the sake of distancing the players out.” But, Coach Yabui added that this wasn’t the reason for the disappointing results; however, he also added that he hopes that rules will return to normal.
Despite so many unprecedented events, there is much hope for the St. Mary’s wrestling program. “This year’s rookies are very good and they learn very fast,” commented assistant coach, Moshe Grimberg, former national team wrestler for Israel and world medalist who is in his 4th year coaching the Titans. Leading the way for the rookies was Jiei Izukune who in two days went 3-1. On top of being a rare left foot stance wrestler, Jiei learns moves and positions quickly. It’s challenging for rookies to be in a good stance or maintain good body positioning when attacking, but Jiei has good sense in those aspects. He comes and has fun in practice every day and works hard, a positive sign of learning. He listens well to his coaches and sticks to what he knows. His front head lock wrestling shined in particular, outscoring three opponents 10-0, while his only loss came from a seasoned wrestler from ASIJ.
Rookie, Jiei Izukune, demonstrating excellent body positioning on a double leg takedown
Taiyo Mitsuoka was another rookie who made a successful debut on the mat. Taiyo has strong legs and when he can “run” them after his leg attack, he’s able to finish most guys with a powerful thrust. With this, he earned two wins, 12-2 and 18-10 against CAJ and ASIJ respectively. He may have gassed out a little in his last match against ASIJ, trailing 17-7. Whatever the outcome, Taiyo wrestled hard until the end and scored lots of points; very rare for a rookie.
Rookie, Taiyo Mitsuoka, finishing a high crotch take down
It’s very common for rookies to panic and “garbage wrestle” (do things that they didn’t learn), but that was not the case for Mikito Wright. While Mikito may not be the most athletic kid, he tries very hard to understand the sport and do what his coaches tell him to do. In his two debut matches, he went out and tried the things he learned, and even scored. His drag-out from the front head lock position was something he struggled to learn in practice, but was almost successful in his matches, which is a huge improvement. “It’s so important the rookies try things no matter how many times it doesn’t work, because this sport takes patience and as long as the wrestler is patient, he will improve,” praised Coach Yabui.
Hugo Squires went 1-1 in his rookie debut. In his match against CAJ, he maintained good stance and constant pressure against the opponent; impressive for a rookie to do so. With his good stance, he was able to block off his opponent’s attacks and with pressure, he was able to capitalize on the opponent’s mistakes to score many takedown points from a go-behind. He can be more effective if he works on a cleaner penetration and stronger leg attacks.
Unlucky for Kent Ishigooka and George Ishigooka, they had no opponents from CAJ, so they had to wrestle their own teammates for an in-house exhibition. For ASIJ, they both made their mat debut like rookies should: a loss. However, Kent, having some experience in middle school with wrestling, was able to showcase a good arm throw in against his teammate. Against, ASIJ, Kent wrestled hard. He showed that he can hand fight aggressively and take risks. In one moment, Kent countered his opponent’s throw to go behind, which unfortunately the refs did not give points for. Then, in another instance, Kent shot a double leg and the opponent tried to counter with a chest wrap throw. It looked like the throw failed and the opponent went to his back, but unfortunately again, the refs called it 4 points to the opponent. The lesson learned here was not to shot a double leg with the head in between the legs, but on the outside, like practice. Though some calls were controversial, Kent wrestled hard till the end and displayed good quality wrestling.
George demonstrates outstanding body position in his high crotch attacks in practice. He can shoot a high crotch with his leg, back, and neck aligned beautifully as it should. He is also pretty physical, despite him not looking so. He has been giving a hard time in practice against the veteran wrestlers and the veterans are surprised at George’s strength, balance, and ability to scramble. “He’s a fast learner,” commented Coach Yabui, “he was shown a move the day before and he did it the next day.” George did have a tough match against ASIJ, being scored by moves he has not seen before. At the end, being down by many points, George took a double leg shot (correct action), but was countered to end the match. George has lots of tools and has great potential for the future.
Sehoon Joung also did not have any opponents at CAJ and wrestled his teammate. Unfortunately, he suffered an ankle injury the next day to take him out of the ASIJ match. Wrestling is completely new for Sehoon and it will take time for him to get the hang of it, but with work ethic and patience, he can show great improvement too.
The experienced wrestlers had their ups and downs in the two days. Jong In Lee is a grinder and a worker. In practice, the level of intensity and his will to perfect moves are top notch. Although he had to sit out against CAJ due to a cut in his head, he recovered for ASIJ to finish the day 1-1. He had a well-controlled first match, out shooting his opponent with his sweep single leg attacks and a well-timed headlock, to easily defeat his opponent 12-1. He struggled with a more experienced wrestler in his next match and dropped the match 12-1 this time. But, the best thing about Jong In is that he never gives up and will never be intimidated.
Junior, Jong In Lee, executing a headlock
Tatsuya Aoki is definitely the biggest fan of the Titans wrestling program as his admiration for success in the sport is evident in the way he acts in school, during practice, and in matches. He faced other experienced wrestlers from CAJ and ASIJ; although putting up a good effort, he fell short in 3 of these matches. The main problem was being too hesitant and not finishing his shots by coming up higher. But, in the fourth match, his moves started to click. Tatsuya is another rare lefty and can shoot effective single legs and fireman carry’s. Everything came together as he got in better positioning after his shots in his last match against ASIJ, to win the match 18-6.
Senior, Tatsuya Aoki, shooting a double leg takedown on the left side
Luke Medeiros missed a few practices due to injury, and that could have cost him his match at CAJ. Luke may not be the most physically gifted wrestler, but Luke never gives up and always tries to be aggressive. In his match against CAJ, he shot a fireman’s carry and tried to do a reverse lock dump and stayed in good position. Just when his moves didn’t seem to work, his opponent came charging at Luke, and Luke took complete advantage to hit a big lateral drop for 4 points. This move probably wasn’t practiced, so it was a matter of smart wrestling and good mat sense. Often times Luke can capitalize on such moments. But, just looking for the opponent’s mistake doesn’t assure a win. Luke had to sit out for the ASIJ match for a neck injury. Once he can recover and put in more practice time, he can have a much better controlled match.
Co-Catpain, and 2020 defending Far East champion, Hikaru Shimada, dominated his CAJ opponent 10-0, showcasing the difference between a Far East champion and other simply experienced wrestlers. He was aggressive and scored by grand moves. However, he struggled to stay with his game against two ASIJ opponents. One of them was a Far East runner-up and the other was also a Far East champion. Both ASIJ wrestlers demonstrated quality wrestling, worthy of a Far East medal, and were able to stun Hikaru. As much credit the two ASIJ wrestlers deserve, Hikaru also was very hesitant on his attacks both times. When Hikaru stays with his game of relentless offense – the way he won his Far East title 2 years ago – he can have a much better match.
By now, it seems like lefties aren’t so rare anymore, as another lefty, Wayne Ho, enjoyed good matches in the two days. He went 2-2, dominating a CAJ and ASIJ opponent 10-0 and 13-2 respectively. However, he fell short with two other ASIJ opponents. The main issue was his set up. Because he is a lefty, when he wrestlers a righty, the high crotch leg is further out for him to catch. Without an effective set up to bringing the leg closer, his shots have a lower chance at succeeding, especially against more experienced wrestlers. With a little fix, Wayne has the aggressiveness and the technique to outscore more wrestlers.
Senior, Wayne Ho, in the middle of a big mat return for 4 points
Wrestling against one teammate at CAJ, Ashmit Jha, redeemed himself from his 10-0 loss at CAJ with a 10-0 technical fall victory at ASIJ. At CAJ, his issue was not locking his hands after a pretty good left high crotch shot; failing to finish the move every time. At ASIJ, he changed his tactics a little to focus on his left fireman’s carry, which worked beautifully; tossing his opponent in the air for a big 4 point move. Ashmit just lacks experiences; and the only way he can get experience, is in practice.
Senior, Ashmit Jha, scoring 4 points with a left side fireman’s carry
2020 Kanto Plain champion, Jo Inoue, may be struggling with his new “weight”. He has gained 25lb since the last time he wrestled. Jo’s strength is in his consistency and relentlessness to wear his opponents down. This tactic did not work so well this time as, one, his heavier weight takes up more energy for him, and, two, the modified rules allows wrestlers to come up to their feet frequently. He struggled with his first opponent at CAJ as the opponent was more physical than Jo, dropping the match 17-11. In his match against ASIJ, Jo was much smarter in using the opponent’s physical strength to his advantage. When the opponent made a mistake of bring his arm up under a front head lock position, Jo turned him over with a cow catcher in a textbook manner. When the opponent came pushing at the edge of the mat, Jo flew him with a headlock in a textbook manner. When the opponent tried to use the St. Mary’s signature reverse lock dump against him, Jo bated him only to stick him to his own back in a textbook “what not to do with a reverse lock dump” manner. Jo easily defeated an opponent much more physical this time 10-0.
Alex Volkov had to wrestle against his teammate at CAJ and had one match at ASIJ. Alex is physically built well and loves wrestling. He enjoys learning and doing, which are promising for his future. He has developed some bad habits before coming to St. Mary’s of not penetrating deep enough and keeping his head down on shots. These did not work to his advantage at ASIJ on top of his “over” hype before his match. But, he has the will to win, determination to get better, and has some physical tools. With some more work, he should be able to find his sweet spot of wrestling moves and combinations.
A Far East placer, Luke Robottom, is on a journey to recall what wrestling was like after losing a season last year due to COVID. Luke showed tremendous improvement throughout the 2019-20 season and was certainly on track to becoming a Far East medalist the next season. But, with the cancellation of last season, it seems like Luke is struggling for wrestling to come back to him. He is making progress. At CAJ, he struggled against a CAJ opponent less experienced than him and was down 8 points until things started to come back for Luke. With this wake up call, Luke began to respond much better to score go behind take downs one at a time until his opponent completely gassed out. In the end, Luke was up 9-8, when the opponent forfeited the match in the middle due to some medical reason. But, at ASIJ, somethings didn’t come back. Luke tried to bate and counter his opponent’s reverse lock dump but failed on two occasions to give up big points. Then, it was too late as he dropped the match 12-0. Luke has the power, speed, and technique to wrestle much better. If his sweep singles and strong front head lock positions can come back, he will surely win more matches.
Senior, Luke Robottom, putting pressure on the opponent for a takedown
Matthew Araya loves being a part of the wrestling team and always looks for ways to promote the sport to everyone. At CAJ, he had to wrestle against his teammate, but at ASIJ, he wrestled well against an opponent heavier than him. When Matthew realized that his shots on his knees wouldn’t work against a heavy opponent, he switched his tactics to a standing single leg with a leg hook for 4 points. Then, two “big” headlocks for 4 points each to finish the match. Great job on his part in dealing with the weight difference.
“We can be the better team in practice all we want by practicing all these moves, but if we’re not going to actually hit those moves or even try in actual matches, we will never be the better team,” said Coach Yabui reflecting on the past few weeks of this odd wrestling season.
“I know our guys are much better than what we saw; and I know they can do it,” added Coach Grimberg.
From the “Golden Decade” of 2010-2020 which St. Mary’s amassed 11 Far East championships titles, 7 Kanto league titles, 4 Kanto tournament titles, and 34 Far East champions, the Titans certainly seems like they have lost their momentum.
“All programs have ups and downs; the idea is to try to prolong the ups and mitigate the downs,” explained Coach Yabui that it was only natural for the program to be seeing decrease in numbers, “but it’s challenging because most of the wrestlers don’t know what this sport is about or understand the expectations of the program after losing one whole season.” The middle school and high school programs combined had over 70 wrestlers in its peak, but now is down to 23 wrestlers this season. But, perhaps it’s a challenge for all sports and all schools; the emphasis and the importance of athletics must have diminished with COVID depriving students of sports opportunities and still continue to do so. How St. Mary’s Wrestling can overcome such challenges and to rebuild a program from almost scratch will be key in determining whose decade this next one will belong to.