At Mat Classic XXXII, Tahoma High School had three state champions, with Yusief Lillie (120), Steele Starren (145) and Levi Kovacs (220) all bringing home titles for the Bears.
But when coach Chris Feist thought about the night’s most impactful moment for the Bears, it was during a second-place finish from 195-pounder Michael Gasper, who lost via a 3-2 decision to Chiawana’s Isaiah Anderson.
After the match, Gasper sank to his knees, clutching a pair of wrestling shoes that previously belonged to Kione Gill, a two-time Tahoma state wrestling champion who took his own life in 2018. When Gasper came into the school as a freshman, it was Gill who took him under his wing.
“They were the best of friends,” Feist said. “(Gill) was his mentor. He really spent a lot of time with him on the mat and just as a friend. It helped set the trajectory with both he and (Kovacs) and what they’re doing.”
So Gasper, in his final high school wrestling match, retired his former friend and mentor’s shoes on the mat on Saturday.
“He’s been carrying those shoes since Kione took his life,” Feist said, fighting back tears. “And he looks at them every day in his locker. He’s been training with a greater purpose and for a greater cause.”
For Tahoma’s coaching staff, the approach has changed since that day. They’re more open, more vulnerable with their wrestlers.
“Something that our staff agreed to and we talk about with these boys, is that we’re never going to forget,” Feist said. “Not because we want to dwell on the past where it hurts us, but because we don’t want it to happen to another boy. So we’re going to talk about things that are bothering us as men, together. And we take time to do that. That’s one of the reasons we’re better today.
“Last year was really hard. And it’s still hard. But we’re getting better together. So in Michael’s match, it wasn’t about the loss, that meant something on a different level. ... He’s still in our hearts, and it’s been heavy in our hearts for a long time since we lost him.”