Nobody knew what to expect of Lynden girls’ wrestler Krystal Cruz entering the season.
At the seeding meeting of the Lions’ first tournament, coach Santos Gallegos brought up Cruz, who had transferred from Texas, arguing her case by stating she had made sub-regionals in the Lone Star State.
“The other coaches kind of chuckled and laughed,” Gallegos said in a phone interview. “Nobody’s laughing anymore.”
The 100-pound wrestler finished second at the Northwest Regional Tournament, losing to Nooksack Valley’s Maria Cazares in the championship match on Saturday, Feb. 14. The result was enough to qualify Cruz for the Mat Classic, which starts on Friday, Feb. 20, at the Tacoma Dome.
While Cruz has found success this season, it didn’t come easy.
As a transfer student, Cruz struggled to find friends. That is, until wrestling season started.
“It was really hard. The first couple months, I didn’t really talk to anyone,” Cruz said in a phone interview. “At a new school and already a junior — juniors already have their cliques and everything. I was this little outsider. My wrestling team took me in and helped me blossom.”
Things didn’t get easier on the mat, though, either.
In Texas, girls’ wrestling is completely different than in Washington. Schools down south have five or six girls wrestling and nobody shoots, it’s all hip tosses and head and arm battling.
Cruz, who fell in love with wrestling because of the aggressiveness of the sport, had to get used to Washington’s style.
“You can actually call this wrestling,” Cruz said of the new competition.
But Cruz was confident.
At the beginning of the season, Cruz believed she would be headed to the Tacoma Dome for the Mat Classic. She already had the experience of a sub-regional in Texas and the coaches told her if she worked hard, she could do well.
“We thought we could maybe get her from sub-regionals to regionals,” Gallegos said. “We said from there, it’s going to be tough. We’ll figure it out when we get there.”
But Cruz wanted to get to state and nothing was going to stop her. In the Lions’ training room there’s a mural of the Tacoma Dome. It proved to be the one constant to Cruz’s motivation.
“Every day in practice, when I wanted to give up, I looked across and saw the Tacoma Dome,” Cruz said. “That’s where I want to be. That’s why I come here every day.”
Seeing that drive, Gallegos and his coaches taught her everything they could — how to shoot, different takedowns and counters, anything she could possibly use in a match.
And she took it all in.
“My initial impression was ‘OK, she has something we can work with.’ She had the speed. She had some talent,” Gallegos said. “We didn’t know she was going to be a sponge. You teach her something and she’ll do it 100 times.”
While Cruz continued to improve in the training room, the results in competition weren’t coming her way.
The struggles began to take their toll.
“I started mentally breaking down. I broke down at least three times in practice crying,” Cruz said. “I wanted it. It just didn’t seem like it could be a reality. At one point, I was real down on myself, thinking, ‘Am I not good enough?’ ‘Is there something I’m doing wrong?’”
The coaches tried to comfort her, telling her to stop playing head games and to believe in herself.
At the Northwest Conference Championships, Cruz lost all but one of her matches.
“At that point, I had to get mentally strong on my own,” Cruz said. “Yes, I could hear three coaches saying, ‘You’re a wrestler,’ but it doesn’t matter unless I think that.”
Her coaches tried to get her tougher opponents in practice, trying to show her she was capable of beating them.
“Once she saw those girls are beatable, her mental game came back,” Gallegos said.
And just in time, too.
She finished fourth at sub-regionals before taking second at regionals, in which she picked up a win over Sedro-Woolley’s Leah Olson, the same opponent who had topped her in the sub-regional semifinal, to clinch a spot at the Mat Classic.
It was a moment when Cruz finally realized she had a chance to do big things at the state tournament.
“Around the middle of the match, there was a moment where I took a shot and missed it,” Cruz said. “I thought, ‘At this point, I didn’t come out here this far to just let her beat me.’ You have to kick it up a notch because you want it. It’s like a hand reach away.”
Now that she’s there, it becomes a matter of how far she can go, but both Gallegos and Cruz go by the classic mantra of “one match at a time.”
The only concern is the big stage of the Tacoma Dome. Girls’ wrestling in Texas is much smaller than Washington and the coaches have tried to alleviate some of the shock of the atmosphere by showing Cruz videos of the event.
“When she gets there, I hope it sinks in quick and then sinks out,” Gallegos said. “The Tacoma Dome, all the mats and noise, I’m hoping it doesn’t affect her. She reached her goal but we tell her, ‘You’re not done yet.’”