Coach Mike Morales stood in the center of the mat in the Reagan Elementary School multipurpose room as pairs of young wrestlers grappled, practicing their moves and working to accustom themselves to a sport trying to gain traction amongst Sanger’s younger folk.

“We’re not trying to pick them up and slam them,” Morales said in response to an ambitious takedown. “Penetrate, elevate. Heads up.”

Reagan’s wrestling Redhawks number about two dozen, and about half are girls. One of the primary reasons for this may be due to Morales’ daughter Merijah, a Sanger High Apache senior who heads to nationals in Fargo, N.D. in July. This is her second year as an assistant coach with the Reagan program.

Last year, the team won the elementary championship at the Navo Classic Tournament. The team prepared for the event this year, and Merijah said she hopes to repeat as her team has delivered a 5-0 season. The classic is from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 31 at Sanger High.

Mike Morales said the goal of his program is to get younger students interested in the sport. “This is foundational wrestling,” he said. “That’s the key for building a program to compete at that next level — Division I.

“It’s not about winning. It’s not about championships. It’s not too competitive. At this level, you want to keep it fun. So at the next level they can learn the tilts, the granbys and the other moves.”

A granby is an escape roll a wrestler uses to undermine an opponent’s position while on all fours. A tilt involves turning an opponent to reduce the angle of his or her back from at least 45 degrees.

Merijah Morales said she’s pleased to have “so many more girls than last year. Women’s wrestling, it’s underplayed. But don’t mess with girls.” She said all the girls this year on the Redhawks team never wrestled before. She said she had just four returning boys from last year’s team.

But all of them have made progress. “I’m so proud of each and every one of them, from the beginning of the year until now,” she said. “All of (the girls) have gotten their first win. They won, they cried, they hugged. That’s what I’m here for. I love it.”

Merijah dislocated her knee just prior to this year’s post-season. She said her doctor wouldn’t release her in time to wrestle for a state championship.

Trevan Martin, 11, said he likes the intensity of the sport. “I like being athletic,” he said. “It’s really fun.”

Trevan said the hard part for him was trying not to get mad or frustrated during a match. He said he’s getting better at channeling his energy into technique to come out on top.

“He’s a really good wrestler,” Merijah said. “It just comes naturally to him.”

Haylee Munoz, 11, likewise liked the sport she’d recently taken up. “We get to, you know, (learn) how to defend ourselves. It’s like a new experience. It’s a talent of yours. Once you learn how to do it, it shows what you’re capable of.”

Haylee said she hopes to continue wrestling into high school. She said she likes Merijah “because she’s kind of our height. You can understand her more better.”

At that point in the interview, Haylee and Merijah performed some dance steps that Haylee had taught Merijah. “I teach them wrestling,” Merijah said. “And they teach me dance moves.”

Mike said he’s proud of every one of his wrestlers. “All of them have distinct characteristics,” he said. “But it’s funny how their chemistry all fits together as a team. Some are so aggressive, and others are shy and timid. But they still get out there.

“When that whistle blows (signaling the start of a match), it’s a like a light turns on and they give 110 percent.”

And Mike said technique beats muscle. He said while strength is fine, learning and mastering moves wins matches.

For those interested in gaining experience, the Sanger Warpath Wrestling Club has summer sign ups from 6 to 8 p.m. June 6 at the Sanger High wrestling room, just off the south gym. The club is for ages 5 and older. The program is operated by Sanger head coach Narciso Juarez and assistant coach Preston Hill. All skill levels are welcomed.

After practice at Reagan, Merijah began a game of sharks and minnows. The object is to be the last minnow standing in the wrestling circle. Each captured minnow became a sitting shark, making it increasingly tough for the remaining minnows.

The wrestlers had a blast. Then they rolled up the mats and tidied up their space. Practice was over.

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