BELLINGHAM - Victory was a long time coming for the athlete Bellingham wrestling coach Tom Hinz calls "our Masked Lion."
"I keep telling him not to get his hair cut," Hinz said of 160-pound junior prospect Alden Roberts, who has a long, blond mane that reminds the veteran coach of a lion.
"Alden has a lion's heart, too," the coach said with a grin.
Roberts played cornerback for the winless Red Raiders in football and lost his first two wrestling matches of the season earlier in the week. But in the annual George Yonlick Tournament on Saturday, Dec. 7, he went 3-0 with three pins.
Three Nooksack Valley wrestlers - senior Paul Newell (132) and juniors Taylor Gardner (138) and Hunter Wittern (145) - all went 4-0, with four pins for Wittern. Tourney host Bellingham also had a 3-0, three-pin performer in junior state meet veteran Sergio Torres.
Perhaps nobody, though, was any happier than Roberts.
"Sure felt good," said Roberts, who wrestles with a mask to protect his nose. "It was good to get to use my moves. I just kept pushing (toward finally enjoying winning). I really don't want to be left behind this season."
Three Bellingham sophomores went to Class 2A state last season, but Roberts was "left behind'' when he didn't make it at regionals. His goal is not only to join them at state this season, but to encourage the mostly younger Red Raiders.
Hinz said Roberts' spirit epitomized the meaning of the tournament, which had only six full teams this time around.
"We all got a later start for practices than usual," said Hinz, noting that Northwest Conference wrestlers weren't allowed official workouts until Monday, Nov. 18. "You need 12 practices to be eligible in wrestling, and some of our guys were taking SATs today.
"So we didn't have a declared tournament champion and coaches let wrestlers fill in on other teams in order to get as many matches as they could get in a round-robin event," Hinz said. "It's all in the spirit of promoting wrestling, which (the late) coach Yonlick always did."
Hinz noted what a tough time Roberts has had with injuries and why he now wears a mask.
"I had a deviated septum twice and two surgeries, with one last April," said Roberts, who helped the Red Raiders beat Sammamish 42-34 and La Conner 42-18. Marysville Getchell beat Bellingham 51-30.
Torres, the only Red Raider who won a match at state last season, continued a promising start with his 3-0, three-pin showing.
"I feel real good. I'm doing better in both schoolwork and wrestling, " said Torres, who is off to a 5-0 start.
Meridian had one varsity entrant, 160-pound junior Treven Elgersma, who went 3-1 with two pins and a technical fall before he lost an exhibition match by pin during the Anacortes-Nooksack match. Overall, he started with four pins and the tech fall before his loss.
"This is only my second year wrestling," said Elgersma, who barely missed getting to Class 1A state last season. "I thought it would be fun and it is. I have really good coaches and good training partners."
Elgersma recalled he weighed about 200 pounds at the start of his sophomore year and once dropped all the way to 146, giving him many more wrestling options. Even so, the lighter weight didn't prevent him from playing on Meridian's state football qualifying team this fall.
"I was fat," he said with a laugh. Now, he just hopes to have a fat record - state is definitely his goal, along with encouraging the mostly young Trojans to become good enough to have varsity careers.
Nooksack Valley's Gardner was thrilled to see teammates Newell and Wittern also go 4-0 as the Pioneers beat Sammamish 62-18, La Conner 48-23 and Marysville Getchell 42-33. Nooksack and Anacortes got a fourth match in and tied 30-30, but the Seahawks got the nod on more pins, 5 to 3.
"It's not so much expectations as it is simply never to quit in a match," said Gardner, when asked if he was surprised by his showing. "If we keep up our work ethic, we (the trio) can all return to state. We mostly have a young team, but we want more company at state."
Gardner said Wittern consistently makes him better.
"Hunter is insanely strong, with really good technique," said Gardner, pointing out how fortunate he feels to have such talented teammates surrounding him in the lineup.