Building Washington’s Girls Team into a National Power
Interview with Coaches Rene Torres and Andy Cook
By Bill X. Barron, Associated Wrestling Press (RMN Events)
The making of a championship contending program began twenty years ago on a living room carpet. Rene Torres had just returned home from his first year in college, when his 10 and 11-year old brothers wanted to learn wrestling. For their first few tournaments, they competed in t-shirts and basketball shoes. The numbers began to build, then around 2003-2008 Coach Torres mentored a youth group through middle and high school; those wrestlers earned multiple state titles, several placed at Fargo, and most received college scholarships to continue their education as well as wrestling career, with a couple becoming college All-Americans. The Victory Club had made its mark. Now with a slew of talented young wrestlers, including Rene’s 6 and 8-year old sons, they are rising again.
Coach Torres states: “Our club has been going to Rocky Mountain National Events for 8 years. We enjoy the atmosphere and love the way they present the sport. RMN Events is 100 percent fan friendly; it’s all about the kids. They come home feeling like they accomplished something really big. Ed Gutierrez has been kind enough to sponsor some of our kids who could not pay their way, helping with entry fees and lodging; he even bought ten tickets for kids who had never been to a hockey game, just so they could see the Colorado Avalanche play.” Adds Coach Andy Cook: “I have always felt that RMN does a great job taking care of its people. I know how hard Rene works to do what’s best for his kids; the fact that RMN Events looks after Rene has made me a fan.”
The state of Washington was one of the early ones to establish an all-girls state meet ten years ago. But until recently, Coach Torres’ daughter Viktorya was the only female in the Victory club’s wrestling room. Now the club has several girls and across the state there are more than 900 girls competing at the high school level, with at least ten schools fielding a full women’s squad. Coach Torres says he learned that while girls can be more sensitive, they can be just as fierce as their male competitors on the mat. In turn, what his daughter and other girls have taught him made Rene a natural selection to coach the Washington state girls team in the USA Wrestling National Duals.
The growth of women’s wrestling in Washington can also be attributed to Coach Cook. Formerly with the Vandit Wrestling Academy, last year he began a women’s college program at Gray’s Harbor College in Aberdeen, WA. In their first dual in 2016, they lost every match; by the end of the year, they finished 18th at the WCA Nationals with one All-American. Four GHC wrestlers placed at the University Trials and two were on the podium at the senior women’s trials. Next year they anticipate 40 girls in the 2nd-year program, including two quality additions: Desiree Zavala, 3rd at the University Trials, and Paige Baynes, a transfer who was national college runner-up this past year. Paige will open the season competing in the NCWA Duals, featuring the nation’s top two male and female wrestlers.
In preparing for the national team duals, Coach Cook asserted the importance of allowing each coach to demonstrate his or her own technique. Team-building activities highlighted the leadership skills of different girls, thus “by the time we arrived, all that had jelled together, and the girls were pulling real hard for one another.” Andy goes on to emphasize “the importance of the little things, like not getting teched and earning small wins such as scoring one point even while losing the match.” Team Washington’s coaching staff consisted of: Andy Cook, WA-USA Women’s Director; Rene Torres, Alexis Garcia, Tony Nunez, Kateri Rowell, and Desiree Zavala.
To gain the finals in Fargo, Team Washington defeated a combined Florida-Idaho-Alaska team 46-18 in the preliminaries, squashed Georgia 51-13 in the Round of 16, came from behind to edge California Blue (‘B’ team) 38-27, and conquered Texas Red 44-19 in the semis. Team California cruised into the team championship by overcoming Hawaii-Idaho-Alaska 46-18, crushing New Jersey 59-4, solidly beating Oregon 52-15 in the quarters, and vanquishing Illinois 44-16 in the semi-finals. The final battle between the top two teams revisited 2014, where Washington defeated multiple finalist California for its first title.
As Coach Torres says: “After beating California a few years ago, we knew it was possible this year. Yet California brought over 60 girls to Fargo, whereas we only had our 30. Plus we had a forfeit at 225 and two of our better girls stayed home, including national champion heavyweight Abby Lees. After we had to come from behind to defeat California’s 2nd team, we took time to teach them strategy, such as trying to score at least one point even if you lose a match. We also taught them how to hold a lead and how to play the edge of the mat. By the time we faced Texas, the girls understood what we were trying to show them; then against California, it all panned out. We beat California by a single point but every match was critical to the outcome.”
In describing the final team match-up, Torres details some of the matches that made their day. Washington built an 9-0 team lead beginning with WA’s Emily Bruntil, a national champ who bumped up a weight 144 to earn a 10-0 tech over CA’s Julia Padilla. At 152, Lena Flanagan WA faced Anatli Smalley, who had beaten her by points in the individual round, but with ten seconds remaining Flanagan threw Smalley for a fall at 5:56. Then California pulled off four straight victories to seize back the lead. Dymond Guilford pinned WA’s Giulana Pepe at 164. In the 180 lb. match, Washington wrestler Quinn Lacey used the strategy she had gleaned from her coaches, thereby keeping her in the match for six minutes against CA’s Emily Sandoval; ultimately, she held Sandoval to only a 7-1 decision. Lacey earned one point for a push-out which was also one team point. At 200, Corey Burton CA put away Jacey Lindner in 2:57. Following a forfeit at 225 to CA’s Arianna Cobian, Washington trailed California Red 18-10.
The turning point in the match came at 100 pounds with freshman Kenzie Cormier WA matched up against Nina Pham. Pham built up an 11-2 lead and was closing in a tech fall, when Cormier stopped Pham’s shot with a crotch lift which put Pham to her back. In a match illustrating why freestyle uses three officials, the center ref missed the fall, but both the judge and the chair signaled for a pin, thus turning a near tech into a fall for a crucial 8-point swing in team points. At 106, after sustaining a head injury, Leah Olsen of WA stayed in the match against Angelina Gomez and was able to score two points; so instead of 5-0 CA for an injury default, it was 4-1 for a tech. Coach Torres’ daughter, Viktorya – a Washington girls state champ as a 9th grader – helped her team keep pace with her own 4-to-1 team point differential in winning by a 14-4 margin over Melanie Mendoza. This tech resulted from a Washington team challenge to a final takedown that was not awarded. Time was out, but the brick was thrown; the video replay showed that the CA wrestler’s elbow had touched, leading to a 2-point takedown and the 10-point margin of victory.
Another key bout came at 117, where two national team representatives, Alleida Martinez CA and Cameron Guerin squared off. In the individual competition, Martinez had prevailed by a 6-5 margin. For the second match Coach Cook says, “I told her to relax, to not let up; to let this match be her redemption. She needed it for herself heading into the Worlds, and we needed it as a team.” This time Guerin came with a renewed spirit, as well as subtle changes such as switching her lead foot; the strategy earned her (and her team) a crucial 5-2 victory. That win gave the lead back to Washington at 24-23.
At 122, California tried to surprise Washington by moving up highly-ranked Rory Coscia, but WA’s Payton Stroud was up to the challenge, vanquishing Coscia with a 10-0 tech fall. In that match, Coscia was put on a shot clock, but the clock did not start right away; in fact, it was 3 seconds late. Stroud scored at the 29-second mark; she was given the 2-point takedown but not the one point awarded for passivity, which would have come in addition to the takedown after the 30 seconds had expired. Ever vigilant, Cook challenged the call; after conferencing with his officials, the chair added one point, concluding the match with the 10-point differential.
WA’s Brenda Reyna continued her team’s surge to five straight wins by quickly pinning Clare Garcia in 33 seconds. At 132, the strategy of staying in the match again paid off for Washington, as they earned 1 point to California’s 3 in Jenna Garcia’s 7-2 decision over WA’s Joessie Gonzales. That one team point – the final margin of Washington’s victory – is symbolic of the entire team’s attitude. By never quitting in her attack, even while trailing 7-0, Gonzales pressured Garcia into a penalty for excessive passivity, resulting in a Caution and 2 points in the final 12 seconds. That match – and team – point sealed the dual. Although McKenna Hutchinson CA earned a 54-second fall over Nicole Clark to conclude the match, Washington had already secured the win by a slim but secure 33-32 margin.
Coach Cook has advanced women’s wrestling by traveling all over the world, studying techniques from Europe and Asia. He asserts: “Now that popular athletes are joining wrestling, that is the tide turner.” Women’s wrestling is to be taken seriously, drawing not only top athletes, but also involving the best coaches like Washington’s Cook, now in his 19th year coaching. “Girls bring a different set of skills,” states Andy. “They use their mind. Girls are more coachable than boys because they listen and they learn.”
“Our future mission is to get more girls involved at the national level,” says Coach Torres. “The next part of the journey is to keep pushing the popularity of wrestling by marketing it directly to women. Hopefully, it will become an NCAA-sanctioned sport. With girls starting at an earlier age, you see some cadets also have success at the junior level. Now with more girls on the club team, and other young wrestlers my daughter’s age, we want them to get onto national and world teams. However, what I take the most pride in is that I have helped kids get to the next step, such as an athlete I coached who just earned a full tuition ride for college. It is gratifying to know that these kids are trying to make something out of their lives.”
*RMN Events is proud to introduce the USA Showcase in Anaheim, CA on January 6, 2018. The top high school girls teams in the country will compete in a national dual tournament, followed by individual competition. See: http://www.rmnevents.com/usashowcase.
The pin at 100 pounds that changed the entire match. Losing 11-2 to CA's Nina Pham, WA's Kenzie Cormier crotch lifts Pham to her back. FARGO GIRLS CHAMP DUALS 2017
(5) Team Washington Coaches (L to R) – Alexis Garcia, Andy Cook (Head), Kateri Rowell, Tony Munez, Viktorya Torres (athlete), Desiree Zavala, Rene Torres
WASHINGTON GIRLS TEAM, FARGO USAW NATIONAL DUAL CHAMPS 2017
Team Washington 2017, Best of the Best (L to R) - Viktorya Torres; Emma Bruntil; Brenda Reyna; Cameron Guerin (Jr. World Team)