After two state medals her first two seasons with Mount Baker’s girls’ wrestling team there were high expectations for Natalie Smith entering this season.
First, she had to get better at something that had nothing to do with technique, stamina or skill. It was all in the mind.
“The last two seasons medaling was a great accomplishment. But what kept me from being in the finals was I was just getting mentally beaten,” Smith said in a phone interview. “I went in thinking they were better than me.”
But Smith had all the pieces to be a great wrestler — “a Saturday night wrestler,” as the saying goes in the Mountaineers wrestling room, referring to the time the championship matches at the Mat Classic are wrestled.
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Wanting to be on that big Saturday night stage, Smith went to work — not on the mats but in books. Smith read a book on mental tips for wrestling and came in this season with a new focus.
That new mentality for Smith paid off all season long, as she compiled a 38-4 record and made it all the way to the 120-pound championship match at Mat Classic XXVII. She fell 5-3 to now three-time state champion Puyallup’s Jordyn Bartelson, but the year was a huge success for Smith, which is why she has been named The Bellingham Herald’s 2014-15 All-Whatcom County Girls’ Wrestler of the Year.
“I kept telling her the last two years to go out and have fun,” Baker coach Clyde Blockley said in a phone interview. “It paid off for her.”
Smith’s mental success extended off the mat as well. Watching the talented wrestler pour her heart out on the mat and just seconds later be calm, composed and confident win or lose in post-match interviews was a special sight and rarely present in high school athletes.
“I know if it’s a good performance or even if there’s more that I could have done, I know that it’s over,” Smith said. “I can’t change what happened. I have to calm myself, think over what I did and always try to improve. I try not to beat myself down.”
Letting the championship match at the Mat Classic go might be slightly harder for Smith, knowing that a win could have put Baker over the top to win the team title, which the Mountaineers fell half a point short.
While Smith knew any match through the whole tournament could have changed the outcome for the team, she knew what her match meant.
“I try not to blame myself too much,” Smith said. “Going into the final match, I didn’t think about it. Afterward it was tough to know we were so close.”
And with only one senior leaving the Mountaineers this season, Smith is confident for the next season of Mount Baker.
She also is hopeful for another chance at Bartelson, who topped Smith twice this season by a combined six points.
“I’m still getting better and better,” Smith said. “I’m confident next time we wrestle I’ll come out with the win. I hope to wrestle her in the finals. That would be really exciting.”
Her coach is certainly confident in her as well.
“She’s probably going to be the best wrestler Baker has ever had,” Blockley said.
As one of two team captains this season — the other being senior Jessica Mata — Smith’s responsibilities extended beyond the mats. Next year, with Mata gone, that responsibility gets placed on Smith’s shoulders even more.
The mature wrestler is plenty apt to handle it though, Blockley said.
“She’s great with all the teammates. She doesn’t get down on anyone,” Blockley said. “We have a lot of fun in the room. We work hard, and she is part of everything.”
Smith enjoys knowing she’s made an impact on what has long been a successful program and her run isn’t over yet. Another year will likely bring even more successes and accomplishments, as Smith make a run for another state medal.
“I feel like that’s a blessing. It shows what my ability and hardwork has gotten me,” Smith said. “It’s an exciting feeling to have had such an impact. Hopefully, I can inspire other people.”