As Missy Elliot’s “Lose Control” bumps from the speakers at Federal Way High School’s girls wrestling practice, the athletes perfect their choreographed dance in preparation for the upcoming sub-regional tournament this weekend.
“This is what they need,” said FWHS girls wrestling head coach Travis Mango. “They need a safe space to forget the seriousness and have fun.”
Despite top-10 rankings with countless victories turning their names into targets, the wrestlers know how to stay level-headed.
It’s been a whirlwind of success in Mango’s three years as head coach of the Federal Way girls wrestling team, following his eight years as coach of both boys and girls wrestling.
The Eagles girls wrestling team has placed among the top four in state over the past three years at the WIAA 4A Mat Classic.
Despite losing multiple wrestlers from a senior studded line-up last year, this year’s young team is energetic, coachable and aggressive, Mango said.
“We’ve reloaded,” Mango said, but the team hasn’t needed to do any sort of rebuilding. Many of the wrestlers on Federal Way’s team are ranked among best in the state and nation. According to Washington Wrestling Report, Federal Way High School ranks fourth in the state behind Union and White River with Sunnyside slated in first.
Freshman Kayla McKinley-Johnson is ranked first in state for the 105 weight class with her season record of 26-1. At 120, junior Anjilia “Jil” Sumandig is ranked third in state with her 25-3 season record. Sumandig and Sophomore London Houston are captains of the Federal Way girls wrestling squad.
Houston herself is ranked 10th in the nation and second in state with a season record of 31-2. Senior Tevahinerii Maiava sits at 10th in state with her 26-5 record.
Federal Way also has strong talent entering this weekend’s sub-regional tournament, Mango said.
Junior Nevaeh Rocha (235) is the No. 4 seed and sophomore Casey Scheschy (130) is seeded fifth. Freshman Kenya Cruz (170) is the No. 1 seed and freshman Paulina Fabela-Santos (100) is entering the sub-regional tournament seeded second.
“I think the toughest match is yet to come, but I’ve had a couple difficult matches this year,” Sumandig said, mentioning her battles with Phoenix Dubose from Yelm and Holly Beaudoin from North Kitsap.
“I learned just to not focus on the rankings because they’re not true, they’re just what a couple people think, they’re predicting … I just try not to pay attention to it too much,” she said.
Sumandig’s overall record is about 131-29. As captain, she upholds the family atmosphere by giving advice to her teammates, sharing “nerves are normal” but don’t psych themselves out by “letting the moment get too big.”
“Not one athlete on this team can be talked to, coached, or motivated the same way,” Mango said.
It’s Mango’s attentive and personalized coaching strategy that the girls appreciate, London Houston mentioned.
“He’s really supportive and he really knows how to talk to us,” Houston said. “Even he doesn’t fully understand a problem, he makes sure he sees it from our point of view … he’s always on our side whether he agrees with us or not.”
Houston doesn’t research the competition and rarely even looks to see how many matches she has. She encourages her teammates to do the same.
“Just don’t even look,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who they are because everybody is beatable.”
Last year, Houston finished sixth in state, her forfeit due to a rib injury at the tournament.
“It wasn’t what I expected, I thought I would do better,” she said, noting she only returned to the mat in August.
“I’m looking forward to showing it doesn’t matter what grade you’re in,” the 15-year-old said. “It makes me feel great that younger people can look at me and be like ‘she’s younger and she’s still accomplished.’”
Age doesn’t matter on the mat, but grit does.
“My greatest strength is just not giving up,” she said. “Even if I shoot a bad shot and I end up holding on their legs while they’re pushing my head down, I will not let go. You’ll have to cut off my hands for me to let go,” she said with a laugh. “I know how not to give up. I think about, ‘OK there’s a minute left, give it your all.’ Once you give up, it’s over.”
This fierce sense is why Mango said “this is the most mentally tough team I’ve ever had.”
And several wrestlers show it.
“I’d like to prove that, you know, our girls are strong fighters and they make it to state and they keep pushing past limits. They want to get recognized,” senior Tevahinerii Maiava said. “Through practice, your dedication and your motivation, it’ll show on the mats … You can do more than you put your mind to.”
Maiava made it to second day of regionals last year, but is aiming for a spot at the Mat Classic come mid-February with her signature style.
“They actually have a C.T.S. for me … Crazy Teva Stuff,” she said. “For years, I was uncoachable, doing all sorts of moves even if it wasn’t a move … My wrestling’s kind of crazy, definitely crazy.”
Freshman Kayla McKinley-Johnson sticks to the fundamentals, but it doesn’t limit her ability, she said. When it comes to her favorite moves on the mat: “Whatever’s there. If it’s high crotch, sweep single, then that’s it. Whatever’s there, I’m going to take it.”
Don’t overthink it, but don’t under-think it either, she said. And always be humble.
“Whether you’re a national champion, state champion, that doesn’t matter when you’re on the mat,” she said. “Anybody can have an off day and anybody can have a day where they’re not mentally ready … you’re out here for you.”
All the accolades and predictions aren’t the end results, Mango said, which means nothing is final until the referee raises your hand on the mat at the Tacoma Dome.
“You never know until it’s done because when you’re under the dome lights looking at 10-20 thousand people, you’re going to be starstruck,” he said.
The big three (Sumandig, Houston, and McKinley-Johnson) may be the talk of the town, but they work diligently to keep all team members encouraged and uplifted, Mango said.
“It’s the group that makes the team,” he said. “They don’t get to where they’re at by themselves. I may sound like a broken record, but we emphasize family.”
For some, this team may be the only source of support in their lives, the only program keeping them out of trouble, or perhaps their only guaranteed meal of the weekend – supplied by Mango and his wife at tournaments.
“Nothing parallels real life like the lessons you learn from wrestling,” Mango said.
You learn how to be resilient and self-reliant, he said, and to keep your circle small. You learn that when you aren’t working, someone else is. Above all, Mango’s “Yoda-ism” is do or do not, there is no try.
“You have to take it match by match, and within that, you have to take it round by round,” Mango said, because every second counts.
Girls wrestling will compete in the sub-regional tournament Feb. 1 and 2 at Thomas Jefferson High School (4248 S 288th Street in, Auburn.) The following weekend, wrestling regionals will be held at Decatur High School in Federal Way.
Decatur’s young talent is led by senior captains Lilly Loranger (135) with an 11-10 record and Adriana Siva (190) with a 9-3 record, said head coach Sam Hunt.
Keep an eye on returners Jessica Morales (125) with 8-4 and freshman Selena Lam (155) with 14-6.
“Adriana was a state alternate two years ago and suffered a season ending injury last year that kept her from returning to state,” Hunt said. “We will have seven girls competing in sub-regionals this weekend with a hope to make it to regionals at Decatur on Feb. 9.”
Todd Beamer is in a growth year with only three girls competing in the sub-regional tournament. The lone returner is junior Isabel Sanner (105) with a 4-7 record.
Thomas Jefferson is currently ranked 10th in state with strong talent from junior Cindy Roberts (120) and senior Raisa Pleasants (120) ranked 4th and 5th, respectively.