BELLINGHAM - Squalicum senior Aaron Saunders is off to a start that shows just how important wrestling has become to him.
After an unexpected year out of the sport, Saunders capped a 5-0 week with four victories at 170 pounds in the George Yonlick Tournament for the improved Storm, who fell to Burlington-Edison 34-33 in the title match Saturday, Dec. 1, at Bellingham.
After Saunders transferred to Othello during his junior year, he was dismayed to learn he wouldn't be eligible to compete.
"I expected to be eligible, but they said I didn't have enough hardship (in the move) to be eligible," said Saunders, who scored two pins and two 15-0 technical falls in the Yonlick Tournament following a pin against Stanwood two days earlier. He allowed only three points combined in the five wins.
"It was hard, but it really opened my eyes to how important wrestling is to me," said Saunders, who pinned Burlington's Ren Miller in the second round of the 170-pound match. "As hard as wrestling is, I really appreciate it now."
Saunders, who was an alternate to Class 2A state as a sophomore at Squalicum, plans to compete at 160 pounds most of the season but is shooting for 152 in the postseason.
"It's great," Saunders said, referring to team spirit under second-year coach Russell Robinson. "The intensity in the wrestling room is picking up and our conditioning is improving. I felt I was better conditioned than all four of my opponents."
Two other Storm senior leaders, Kyle Stallo (195) and state tournament veteran Zack Alter (145), also went 4-0 and helped Squalicum beat Anacortes 64-16, Mount Vernon 42-33 and Sehome 59-13. Stallo had four pins and Alter had three pins and a 7-1 decision.
Like Saunders, Stallo has added motivation.
"I got hurt (a shoulder sprain) in the last regular-season match last year," said Stallo, who like Saunders and Alter enjoyed a 5-0 week. "I tried to go at district, but I had to forfeit. It was hard, but it definitely became motivation for this season."
Stallo, a four-sport athlete, feels much improved in wrestling.
"I went to the Washington Intensive Camp over the summer," he said. "There were 360 (of the state's best and most dedicated) wrestlers there, and 12 of us were from Squalicum. That's more than we've had before. I think we have the potential to go pretty far as a team."
Alter, a fourth-year wrestler, said Robinson's weight-lifting program is helping him and his teammates.
"I definitely think we're getting stronger as a team," said Alter. "One of my goals is to help show the underclassmen that they can count on me to go out and get that pin. I remember how we had a lot of good senior leadership when I was a freshman. Now it's our turn."
Robinson, a Squalicum graduate who at 27 is among the state's youngest coaches, agrees with his seniors about the team's potential.
"I'm just very proud of our guys," Robinson said. "We came off a tough loss to Stanwood on tie criteria (following a final tie score). "Aaron Saunders really is very motivated. Burlington is a very tough team, but I think the next time we see them, it'll be a different story."
Bellingham wrestlers Dylan Hanson (285) and Blair Bennett (160) also went 4-0, as did Sehome's Evan Villalobos (152) and Steven Yazzi (138). Bennett was especially impressive with four pins.
"It was a very successful day," said longtime Sehome coach Scott Schroyer, who has one of his best turnouts with about 35 wrestlers and saw his team go 3-1, including wins over Meridian/Marysville JV 66-15, Marysville Getchel 66-9 and Sammamish 48-30. "The kids are really working hard, and that's all you can ask."
Bennett, a Bellingham sophomore, scored four solid pins and Hanson, a senior teammate, had three pins and a decision in official matches.
"It was a lot better," Bennett said of his feeling this season. "I'll have a little more confidence now. It was really nice. I went two-and-out at sub-regionals as a freshman."
Hanson, who made it to regionals as a junior before going two-and-out, said he isn't taking anything for granted, despite his outstanding start.
"I expect to win matches, but I realize I have to really compete every single match," Hanson said. "I'm going to have to go out and really put up a fight every time. It was just real frustrating to end two-and-out last year, but it motivated me and showed me how much I had to work in the offseason."
Nooksack Valley went 2-2, scoring wins over Sammamish 48-30 and Bellingham 36-27. Bellingham and a Meridian/Marysville-Getchel JV combo went 1-3.
GEORGE YONLICK TOURNAMENT
BURLINGTON-EDISON 34, SQUALICUM 33
106: Anthony Krause (S) by forfeit; 112: Hugo Diaz (B) pinned Josh Pratt, 3rd; 120: Tom Zabelka (B) pinned Spencer Wallace, 3rd; 126: Eman Trujillo (B) dec. Luke Jordan 9-2; 132: Jobe Ashby (S) by forfeit; 138: Tristan Delarm (B) d. Zack Wallace 15-12; 145: Zack Alter (S) dec. Nick Granberg 7-1; 152: Tanner Zavala (B) dec. Josh Ewing 14-10; 160: Brandon Grandy (B) pinned Cole Welch 2nd; 170: Aaron Saunders (S) pinned Ren Miller 2nd; 182: Wes Fleury (B) d. Cooper Stach 9-4; 195:Kyle Stallo (S) pinned Tanner Holmes 1st; 220: Colton Bogle (B) by forfeit; 285: Patrick Schjelderup (S) by forfeit.
First round -- Bellingham 36, Sammamish 27; Burlington-Edison 42, Nooksack 36; Sehome 66, Meridian/Marysville-Getchel JV combo 15; Squalicum 64, Anacortes 16.
Second round -- Marysville-Getchel 50, Bellingham 21; Squalicum 42, Mount Vernon 33; Nooksack Valley 48, Sammamish 30; Anacortes 52, Meridian/Marysville-Getchel JV 29.
Third round -- Burlington-Edison 57, Marysville-Getchel 24; Squalicum 59, Sehome 13; Mount Vernon 60, Nooksack Valley 34; Anacortes 42, Bellingham 30.
Fourth round -- Sehome 66, Marysville-Getchel 9; Mount Vernon 42, Anacortes 30; Nooksack Valley 36, Bellingham 27; Meridian/Marysville Getchel 54, Sammamish 42.
Fifth round -- Burlington-Edison 34, Squalicum 33; Mount Vernon 54, Marysville-Getchel 30; Sehome 48, Sammamish 30.