Second-year wrestling coach Jacob Spadoni was beaming on Monday afternoon, looking around the Gig Harbor High School wrestling room.
“Twenty-eight kids,” he said, excitedly.
That’s double the number that turned out for the Tides’ squad last year. Spadoni’s biggest goal when he took over the program was to reverse the trend of dipping participation numbers. The biggest reason for the turnaround? Spadoni’s presence at the high school.
Spadoni is a full-time substitute teacher at GHHS, as well as an assistant coach for the cross country and track teams.
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“I’m just roaming the halls a lot better,” Spadoni said. “When the kids need something, I’m there. They can just come find me. Just being able to see kids in the hall, someone will tell me, ‘They used to wrestle,’ or things like that. I can pester them a little bit and get them to come out for the team.”
It’s an encouraging sign for the program, which had seen its numbers dwindle year after year. Now, the team is ranked 15th in Class 3A via washingtonwrestlingreport.net and is returning two state placers: Junior Zayne Ball, who took sixth last year at Mat Classic in the 160-pound weight class, and senior John Bittinger, who took seventh in 152.
Bittinger has amassed a 5-0 record on the year. After coming to GHHS with a timid personality, Bittinger seems more confident than ever in his abilities and has asserted himself in the early part of the season.
“I’m eager,” Bittinger said. “I just want to dominate this year. I want to be a state champion and be undefeated.”
Spadoni has been a key part of his increased confidence and ability on the mat, Bittinger said.
“He’s taught me a lot of good technique, a lot of good strategy, how to wrestle better and wrestle more confident,” he said.
Spadoni said that for Bittinger, mastering the mental game has been as big a key as any.
“He just doesn’t believe in himself sometimes,” Spadoni said. “But he’s better than any kid out there in 152 right now or 160.”
Bittinger proved that last weekend at the Wilfong Classic at Puyallup High School, beating Puyallup’s Nolan Martinez, 4A’s fourth-ranked wrestler in 152, in the finals of the tournament.
“He went against (Martinez) and just gobbled him up,” Spadoni said. “He put on a clinic. It was great.”
As for Ball, he has proven himself as one of the program’s most polished wrestlers, and hopes to take the next step this year after experiencing Mat Classic for the first time as a sophomore. He’s 4-1 on the young season.
“It was really fun experiencing the grandness of (Mat Classic),” Ball said. “Being a state champion is my goal now. I experienced state and I want to take it now. … I’ve beat some of the guys ranked ahead of me. So seeing them, it’s motivating to try to prove myself and prove that I can be at the top of the podium.”
Ball said he’s working on his endurance and going deeper into matches.
“Pushing myself, the coaches pushing me and just getting past that barrier of being tired in the third round,” Ball said. “I’ve always had that wall. I just need to be able to push past that and just attack.”
Spadoni sees a big finish coming for Ball this year.
“He just needs to trust in the work that he puts in here,” Spadoni said. “He’s a great wrestler and works hard. It’ll come.”