On the softball diamond in the springtime, Kentwood High School senior Sarah Wright is seen throwing chairs left and right. But in the winter months, Wright throws people down left and right — with a familiar voice in her corner.
She is on a quest for a state title on the wrestling mat this year, and her coach also doubles as her dad.
“I definitely don’t think I would be as good as an athlete or player if my dad wasn’t coaching me,” Sarah said. Her dad has helped coach her for the majority of her life. “He was always around helping us out. He’s been coaching for a really long time. He’s really knowledgeable.”
Dan Wright, her father and a middle school teacher, has been coaching wrestling since 2002. The former high school wrestler got Sarah involved with the sport when she was just 4 years old.
“We put her in wrestling back when she was 4,” Dan said. “Partly because of her older brother, but mostly so she would be good at whatever sports she wanted to try. And she stuck with it.”
There is a joke in the Wright family that Sarah does this just to stay in shape for softball, but there is a lot more effort that goes into it than just staying in shape.
“She digs in. When the season starts, she gets on it,” Dan said.
Sarah can be seen dominating in most athletic scenarios. With her dad as a coach, he has seen her put in the time and effort. The success in her high school career and even before then is just a byproduct of that hard work.
“She’s so flippin’ competitive. She wants to win at whatever she is doing. In middle school, she had to wrestle boys, and in her eighth-grade year, she was undefeated until the very last match. Then when she started wrestling girls, she realized, ‘Oh, I am kind of advanced,’” Dan Wright said.
Being a father-daughter duo, Sarah thinks for some it is harder for a daughter to bond with her dad. So to have a strong connection with her dad is not taken for granted.
“Me and my dad bond over sports. Wrestling is our thing,” Sarah said. “Most of our talks are kind of sports related. It’s like what else are we going to talk about. I am not going to talk to him about boys or whatever.”
As many athletes know, the car ride home after a bad game can be worse than the loss or struggle on the field. Now imagine the driver is your coach as well. That balance between dad and coach is one that took a while to find its place.
“The biggest challenge for her and I is to remain dad. It is by far the hardest thing … There was definitely a growing period, trying to sort out how to talk to her without being the typical coach. I pride myself in being a dad first,” Dan said.
In Sarah’s freshman year, there was no state tournament. Her sophomore year saw her just miss placing inside the top eight for wrestling.
During her junior year she almost quit the sport entirely, but after sitting out of three practices and sitting on the side for one of those three, she had to scratch the itch again.
“Last year she decided to not wrestle and just focus on softball. She came to one practice and watched everyone. The next day she had the boots on ready to go. That holdout lasted one day,” Dan said with a laugh.
“I can’t just watch and not be involved in something that I’ve done for so long,” Sarah said.
Last season in the Class 4A/3A state tournament, she placed third at 155 pounds after almost not competing. That fire is back this season, even after a tough loss in the championship of the 2024 Braided 64 Tournament in Kelso — after winning her division in 2023.
“Last year you were just excited to be here and maybe make top eight. Then this year you’re totally mad you didn’t take first. To repeat a tournament like that is unheard of. She was looking for the impossibility that it was,” Dan said.
Wright over her last two seasons has a combined record of 61-7 entering the 2024 season. Wrestling opponents she knows won’t challenge her, and that is a challenge of its own. But thanks to having a good coach and good teammates on the boys side, that helps prepare her for what is to come.
“There isn’t much competition (in our area). But let me tell you in there,” she said, pointing to the Kentwood auxiliary gym. “They don’t care that I am a girl, they don’t care that I have been to state. They just get after it… I’ll get my butt whooped in there, but I feel like they are pushing me to be stronger.”
Her dad uses the fact that she is a top wrestler in the area also as motivation. People want to try and taker her down because that would be a career highlight.
“I try and remind her she’s got a big a bullseye on her. There are kids that really want to and it would make their day if they took her down. I try to remind her that every single match matters,” said Dan, who has 20-plus years of experience as a wrestling coach.
4 a.m. wake-up calls
On the softball side of things, Dan’s experience level turned to novice. As Sarah was starting to enjoy the sport of softball, Dan wanted to learn some on his own to help out. So instead of paying thousands of dollars for lessons, he took to YouTube and was referred to as the YouTube coach by Sarah for a little bit.
“I didn’t know a lick of softball… If you want to be a pitcher, they’re seeing coaches every week and those coaches charge $100 an hour. So I went and got on YouTube and started watching college pitchers,” Dan said.
But after a while, Dan started to see things without the help of the internet, along with the help of Sarah, who was also starting to find her own way in fastpitch.
“I starting to realize what these girls do and so through that we were modeling what college pitchers did… That’s how we went about that, really out of necessity,” Dan said.
Time and effort are never lacking with the Wrights. Between 4 a.m. catch sessions at Meridian Middle School, wrestling practice at Kentwood, and videos sent back and forth between Sarah and Dan, some days are longer than others.
“It’s definitely hard sometimes… There are some points where I’m seeing my dad every single day for four or five hours. Sometimes it’s a little tough because he’ll say or do something that ‘pokes the bear,’ we call it. Something a little dangerous where I get snappy. But then there are other times where we get to bond,” Sarah said.
Wake-up calls at 4 a.m. are a different type commitment to greatness, and Sarah appreciates the sacrifices her dad has made to be there for her.
“I don’t think you’ll find anyone anywhere in this area getting up at 4 a.m. I know a couple of people who say my parents sleep til l like noon. Then I tell them ‘My dad is kicking me out of bed to do this workout,’” Sarah said.
“I get my competitive drive from him, especially in matches, you’ll see him get fired up,” Sarah said.
Both Dan and Sarah have developed a lot over the past four years, personally and athletically. For Sarah, seeing her dad turn into the coach he is today has been special.
“He’s learned a little bit more on how to just work with girls in general… Girls have a different style of wrestling and so he has to learn how we move,” Sarah said.
Dan gets a special seat every match Sarah has wrestled. Her growth on and off the mat is something that he is extremely proud of.
At some point this year, Sarah will wrestle her last match. That is a reality that is getting closer. That is a moment that most likely will bring tears to both Sarah’s face and Dan’s face.
“Just the fact that she’s got one more shot is something she’ll never forget,“ Dan said.
“I’m going to cry. I already know I am going to cry,” Sarah said referring to her final match. She also said she bets Dan is going to cry too: “Thinking about my connection with my dad… This is our thing. I’m leaving this year. It’s my last year doing this. It’s going to be tough.”
Sarah is playing softball next year on a scholarship at the University of Arizona in Tucson. As a Kentwood sophomore in 2022, she was named the Gatorade Washington Softball Player of the Year when she compiled an 18-1 record, 0.33 ERA and 330 strikeouts; she batted .486 with six home runs. She was the North Puget Sound League Player of the Year in 2023.
With that kind of success in softball, Sarah is not wrestling after this year. That has its benefits, but also its drawbacks.
“I probably won’t miss the sprints and all the conditioning. But I’ll miss the feeling after winning a match. It’s one of the best feelings,” Sarah said.
Kentwood’s softball season opens March 14, just about a month after the Mat Classic XXXV takes place Feb. 16-17 at the Tacoma Dome.
“Her killer mentality will still be there and she can carry that into the spring. I’m hoping she has fun,” Dan said.