First published in the Jan. 27 print issue of the San Marino Tribune.
It should come as a surprise to nobody that wrestling has been among the sports most negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not only are competitors encouraged to make maximum physical contact during matches, social distancing is illegal.
“It’s called ‘stalling,’” San Marino High School head wrestling coach Morris Bird said with a laugh. “You get penalized for it.”
It’s true. Competitors that avoid contact on a regular basis receive a warning from the match referee and are docked points for continued incidents.
San Marino’s team has not been able to compete this season on a consistent basis, but it’s certainly not a result of avoiding competition, rather the proliferation of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. In fact, all but one of the Titans’ dual matches was shelved due to increased infection rates and even that one — against La Cañada — has been scrubbed from the record. The Rio Hondo League schedule was so affected after the holidays that the five member schools held an “open mat challenge” on Tuesday afternoon to get an idea of who they will be matching up against at the league finals on Wednesday, Feb. 2, at Monrovia High School.
“The good news is we will have an opportunity to make up some of our matches tomorrow,” Bird said in an interview this week. “We don’t have a very big team, but we have the second-biggest team in the league. I think we can qualify several wrestlers at league finals.”
It’s Bird’s first year at San Marino High School after coaching at “various times and places” since 2006. He might be the perfect person to be leading the Titans into battle and views the opportunity as a blank page to be filled with his handiwork.
“I feel great about the program,” Bird said. “It’s great group of kids and I really love their overall attitude. There have been a lot of challenges this year. We have had to cancel [matches] and other teams have had to cancel on us. It’s just a matter of keeping these kids focused. But the kids and the parents are wonderful. I am truly spoiled.”
During a recent interview with the Tribune, Bird chose to speak about his athletes based on their grade level, starting with freshmen and, in particular, Maila Arambula, who is enjoying her first year in the sport.
“Maila is a wonderful bundle of joy and smiles and she is also a very good athlete,” Bird said. “She sets a good example in the room.”
Fellow freshman Jack Gregson has also impressed his coach.
“Jack is high-spirited and aggressive,” Bird said. “He is also very strong and I am looking forward to his future.”
Elle Kang was the first female to sign up.
“Elle is nice as can be [and] wonderful to have in the room,” Bird said. (“The room” is the descriptive and comprehensive term for the sport, given the large amount of time that wrestlers spend at practice.) “Elle is learning the sport and has a great attitude. She has a lot of courage.”
Freshman Jack Li has impressed Bird with his intuitive nature.
“Jack is always asking questions,” said the coach. “He really wants to learn and grow as a wrestler.”
Richard Ma has a “high ceiling” for the spirt, according to Bird.
“He has a great feel for wrestling,” said the coach. “When I watch Richard compete, I can see he has a bright future.”
Matt Negroe is “ultra-committed,” according to Bird.
“He never misses a practice,” said the coach. “Matt is lively and fun-spirited; he also works very hard and pushes everyone in practice.”
Caleb Newton is another extremely hard worker.
“I really like Caleb’s attitude,” Bird said. “He is a natural athlete with a natural aptitude for wrestling.”
Brayden Ryan has focused on learning proper wrestling technique, according to his coach.
“From his very first days, Brayden has really emphasized learning the fundamentals of the sport,” Bird said. “He is a wonderful young man.”
Sam Xia is another newcomer who has met with positive results on the mat.
“When we went to our junior varsity tournament, went 2-2 in his matches and was very happy,” Bird mentioned. “He competed really well and it was fun to see how full of joy he was.”
Tomey Satterthwaite is, according to Bird, “one of the most courageous kids on the team.”
“At the beginning of the season, Tomey showed up in the room and he has really stuck it out. He has a great spirit and sense of positivity. I hope that Tomey has been bitten by the wrestling bug.”
Julian Solis impressed the student body during his debut with the Titan football program last fall.
“Julian is real tough and real strong,” Bird explained. “When his wrestling skill catches up with his strength, he will be a monster on the mat. He has a great overall competitiveness and my focus is on teaching how to wrestle.”
Hunter Sparks wraps up the freshmen and has been another pleasant surprise for Bird.
“I like Hunter a lot,” the coach said. “He is very interested in wrestling and he really enjoys the sport. I’m hoping to keep him involved and am looking for him to get better. We are glad to have him in the room.”
Sasha Redshaw is one of the four sophomores on the squad and spent the last winter sports season as a member of the girls’ soccer team.
“Sasha is incredibly athletic and a very tough competitor,” Bird said. “She is really strong and a lot of fun to have on the team. Sasha is leader who gets along with everyone on the team. If she commits herself to the sport, she can be a challenger.”
Taylor Tan is one of the strongest leaders on the team.
“He helps other wrestlers, is very nice and also very mature beyond is age,” Bird said. “He has a background in judo and is new to wrestling. He looks very much at home on the mat and is a great guy.”
Sophomore Kevin Wang is another newcomer to wrestling who has impressed his coach.
“Kevin always works hard, competes hard and is learning the sport and learning about the intensity you have to bring,” Bird said. “He really enjoys the sport and has barely missed a practice. If he can stay locked in, Kevin will be very competitive.”
“Competitive” is a word that helps define sophomore Ryder Yoshitake.
“He is a great wrestler,” Bird said. “Ryder also has a strong judo background and has wrestled for several years. He is very driven and my goal is to get him qualified for the state tournament. Ryder is a leader by example and one of the hardest-working people in the room.”
Sebastian Tse is one of two juniors on the squad.
“Sebastian started off the season very well,” Bird said. “He also performed very well this year in a junior varsity tournament and has a bright future in wrestling.”
Junior Cassie Arrington is an accomplished wrestler who has already earned medals in two tournaments.
“Cassie has really good technique and I love having her on the team.” Bird explained. “She is a very responsible person and a great help to our coaching staff.”
Ryan Arrington is one of the squad’s five seniors and, according to Bird, the source of senior leadership.
“He is our captain even though we have never declared him captain,” said the coach. “he has a strong chance to get to the state level. He is a great competitor and a knowledgeable wrestler.”
Arrington finished fourth in the 220-pound weight class at the Battle for the Belt Tournament and Bird hopes to see him on the medal stand at other competitions by the time the season is over.
Cole Giles recently joined the team and has been a welcome addition.
“In the short time he has been around, Cole has been very strong and a strong presence in the room,” according to Bird. “He has a great quality to him and Cole has shown a tendency to push himself.”
Senior Ryan Lee is a first-year wrestler.
“Ryan is a professional kid and a polished young man,” Bird said. “As a first-year wrestler and a senior, it would be easy to not get involved at this point and he decided to wrestle, which I find very impressive. Ryan is a great kid.”
Brian Murtonen is another hard worker.
“In terms of sheer effort in practice, Brian is at the top of the list,” said Bird. “I hope other kids see how hard he works. Brian has a great attitude and is a pleasure to have on the team.”
Senior Andrew Sohn wraps up the roster.
“He is another first-year senior on the team and when he has been around, I have really admired how hard he has worked,” Bird said. “He is an asset every time he walks into the room.”
Though the season has barely begun, it will conclude soon, with the Rio Hondo League finals next week and any CIF appearances the Titans can manage left on the horizon.
“It’s all right there and I have a good feeling that we can move several athletes on to the postseason,” said Bird. “No matter what, this has been a great experience and a nice transition for the wrestling program. We are moving in the right direction.”