For over a decade now, the Sumner Bulldogs have been the undisputed leaders in the Public High League, in turning out the best and brightest wrestlers while keeping the sport relevant to the fans and supporters who still enjoy more than a casual interest.
In fact in some years, a case could have been made that the Bulldogs success and notoriety helped keep the sport alive in the PHL, amid athletic budget cut proposals. Again last year Sumner set the league standard by advancing five wrestlers to the Missouri state championships in Class 2: Corleon Thomas (113 pounds),: , , Donte Brownlee (145), Mikal Waters (152) and Carvaughn Boyd (195) and Marvin Brown (220)
This year co-captains Claxton and Waters along with a host of newcomers, including a female for the first time, will be trying to reach the state championships in Columbia next month: Latrice Washington at 126 pounds is not breaking new ground in terms of being the first female wrestler in the state or the Public High League. She is simply trying to be the first from the PHL to advance to state. and with a 10-2 record through a couple of topnotch tournaments she may well be on her way to advancing to the ultimate tourney.
But before Washington established some level of credibility as a good wrestler, she had to prove herself simply as a competitor and not just the novelty act of being the 'girl wrestler', she acknowledged.
"I've been wrestling for two years now," noted Washington, a senior. "My biggest fear for competing in a male sport was being undermined by men and women everywhere. No one thought I would be able to do it. They thought I joined just to play around, but I proved myself. I proved that I could."
Consequently as she has made strides on the mat, she has likewise made strides in garnering respect and appreciation. Off the mat, she carries a 3.0 grade-point average and has scored a 24 on the ACT test, which is considered the 74th percentile.
"My support as I continued winning these matches has gone through the roof," she explained. "I have people from other teams giving me advice. If I now ask if I can train with them they don't hesitate to say yes. The respect I get now is just awesome. Every time I wrestle (and do well) I get applause. People shake my hand. They say congratulations and that I did really good. That just makes me proud of myself even more, it makes me want to continue doing what I'm doing."
Of course with the aforementioned 10-2 mark, what she 'has been doing' is winning much more often than not. She captured the championship of the competitive PHL Holiday Invitational, which annually features the PHL programs plus some notable non-conference teams, in late December. She also claimed third place in the even more prestigious John Burroughs and Vianney Tournaments after that holiday title.. Longtime Bulldogs coach Anthony Mitchell, who has veritable all-star list of PHL wrestlers at a few coaching tenures in the league, acknowledged that McKendree College, a Division11 small-school power, which was ranked 13th in the country this month, has already tendered Washington a scholarship.
"She's gotten compliments everywhere she has wrestled," added Mitchell. "A cable station will be here Wednesday to feature Latrice as part of a series on females in male-dominated sports."
Mitchell says Washington's best moves are the head and arm toss and the "barbed wire", the latter of which he describes as a "double arm bar from the front. It basically ties up the arms like being in a barbed wire fence."
But on the flip side, Washington hasn't been hemmed in by the competition. Just as she has grown acclimated to the sport, Washington said she is steadily improving her techniques.
"Regardless of when I go up against the boys, coaches tell me I've gotten much better and my technique is good," Washington noted.
But now that she is successful enough whereby she is judged like one of the boys that means the standard of Sumner excellence will definitely be higher. After all, Sumner's program has really thrived in the lower and middle weights in recent years. From 2005-2007 Donte Butler set the gold standard for Sumner and PHL wrestling by finishing third at state as a sophomore at 112 pounds despite wrestling with one hand because of a serious injury. Then he came back as a junior and senior to finish state runner-up at 119 pounds. As a senior the only blemish Butler's spectacular 42-1 mark was to Bradley Wisdom of Farmington in the title match.
Butler and recent graduate Darren Manning, another state medal winner who actually had a longer winning streak than Butler (at 46) before he was eliminated in the semifinal rounds at 171 pounds, Butler's cousin Davonte Gomilla (152) and Zorian Price (also 171) are many Sumner state contestants who have sustained Sumner's mat success over the years.
Not surprisingly, Washington has company among teammates who have exhibited state-qualifying potential: For starters James McGregory is a force to reckon with at 138 pounds, after winning the John Burroughs tourney in that weight class and capturing third place at the PHL Holiday Invitational and the Vianney tourney. Then there's sophomore sensation Corleon Thomas who's 9-1 and qualified for state last year at 112, whom Mitchell describes as having "good take downs and is wonderful on the mat." There's also Kendrick Claxton touting a 12-2 mark at 160 pounds, which includes the PHL Holiday title, runner-up at Vianney and third place at the John Burroughs meet.
"He has taken over the roll of becoming an excellent team leader," said Mitchell. "He's a hard worker, extremely dedicated and a leader filled with good sportsmanship."
Keland Bakerat 145 and Emmanuel Taylor at 285 are a couple others who bear watching as the district meets (state qualifying) get underway throughout the state at various venues next weekend. But more eyes may be on Washington because she is a female, and now a rather accomplished female wrestler in a male-dominated sport
"I've had other (opposing) coaches speak to colleges about me wrestling ," relayed Washington. "I love how much the coaches respect me. I'm not just some girl that wrestles now. I'm the girl who wrestles and is good."