Tannen Soojian sat down for breakfast and poked at his eggs.
He wanted to eat, but he couldn’t. His stomach was already filled with butterflies.
“I’ve never been one to stir my food,” Soojian said.
But he forced it down anyway. He needed his energy. Two hours later, the Atascadero senior would begin the biggest match of his high school wrestling career.
It was Saturday, March 5. They call it “The Round of Tears,” a fitting name for the make-or-break round on the final day of the CIF State Wrestling Championships at Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield. Wrestling in the 182-pound weight class, the Greyhound senior went 3-1 on Friday. A win in the first match on Saturday would guarantee that he’d place, making Soojian just the eighth wrestler in Atascadero High history to do so at state. A loss, and it would all be over.
It was the culmination of a brilliant season for Soojian. He was crowned CIF-Southern Section champion and finished second at the CIF Masters to earn a spot at the state tournament. Now he had one more opponent to beat to fulfill a dream he’d had since he was in fourth grade. Angel Solis, a senior from Lemoore, was the only thing standing in his way.
The moment he shook Solis’s hand, Soojian, 18, knew he was in for a battle. In regulation time, the match was even. The wrestlers traded maneuvers, but neither pulled away. Overtime.
Soojian was confident. He had never lost an overtime match.
“The announcer is calling saying, ‘Overtime on Mat 6,’ and everyone is looking at Mat 6,” Soojian said. “I look up, and I’m on the four-sided megatron. I was thinking, ‘Man, this is do or die. I’m going to remember this moment forever.’ ”
Back in Atascadero, his friends watched online.
Soojian was tired, but his obsessive training left him plenty of gas in the tank. A Solis kick to Soojian’s face earned the Greyhound a point heading into the second overtime.
An overtime period later, Soojian had a 3-1 victory and the referee lifted his hand.
“Tears started flowing, and I looked up at my mom,” Soojian said. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is cool. I just beat one of the top kids in California, so I must be one of the top kids in California.’ It kind of hit me right there.”
But Chris Ferree, who had helped coach Soojian to the upper echelon, was nowhere to be found.
The two sat next to each other in the dimly lit Atascadero wrestling room on Monday and recounted the moment.
“I just got up and got out of there,” Ferree said of the moments following Soojian’s win. “I just get so overwhelmed, so emotional. I was just so proud of him.”
“I’m sure he was crying somewhere,” Soojian said with a smile.
Ferree has coached at Atascadero for 25 years, mentoring in wrestling, football, water polo and cheerleading. For the past 15 years, the CIF has handed out the Model Coach Award, and on Feb. 8, 16 coaches in California who “have served as positive role models in their schools and communities” were named. Among the recipients this year was Ferree.
“To me, the coolest thing was, after I won it, my wife posted something on Facebook and to see the kids I coached comment. … That was cool,” Ferree said, tearing up. “You work yourself to the bone to try to build good men, but you don’t see it until years after. This award gave me an opportunity to see what we made in here. That makes it worthwhile.”
Part of his job this year was to build Soojian’s confidence.
“When I came on, I had to come in and convince him that he’s Tannen frickin’ Soojian,” Ferree said.
“That was his No. 1 line,” Soojian agreed. “He’s motivational. He’s slap-you-in-the-face, get-back-to-work. He will sit down and talk with you if you need a little something. He has all sorts of tips — about wrestling, about life, about winning and losing. He’s the world’s best mentor.”
Soojian and Ferree bonded over what Ferree calls, “the sickness of winning.” But Ferree said that he didn’t truly become a great coach until he began leading teams where winning didn’t matter, such as cheerleading.
“The key to being a successful coach is to keep that in perspective — and that’s hard,” Ferree said of the tendency to let winning blind coaches from everything else.
“For me, this is coaching: My goal is to be great in the unmeasurables,” Ferree said. “I want Tannen to be an amazing dad, a worker. And the kids I coach to be that, no matter what sport I’m coaching, boys or girls — mentally tough, mentally strong.”
Crazy Work Ethic
Across the wall of the orange-and-white Atascadero wrestling room are a few words that Greyhound wrestlers live by.
The first phrase on the wall is “CONSTANT MOTION.” Soojian takes it to heart — both on the mat and when he talks.
His fingers flick the orange foam as stories from the season spill out in a stream of consciousness. It’s hard for him to sit still. That comes in handy in the wrestling world where stagnation kills.
“We will be eating dinner, and I kind of have OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder),” Soojian said. “If I think I ate too much or ate bad food for dinner, I will just get up after dinner and put on sweats and go run outside in our driveway.”
Soojian said he limited time with friends and stayed on a strict diet of chicken, tuna, fruits and vegetables throughout the season. Sometimes he would splurge.
“Once a month, I would have a muffin or something,” Soojian said. “Because muffins are good, man.”
Soojian said one of his favorite things to do is run at night on the busy streets of downtown Atascadero. When running down El Camino Real, he likes to find a business that has closed for the night and duck behind the building to do a few pushups or practice his stance in front of an unsuspecting tree with the music in his headphones blasting — like a wrestling Rocky Balboa in the middle of a montage.
Soojian said it was that extra work that helped him take out Cajon’s Josh Loomer to claim seventh place when the CIF Tournament was over.
“I like doing weird stuff like that,” Soojian said. “I think that’s what champions do.”
He added, “It’s almost psychotic, but it’s awesome.”
The padded training room that is filled with sweat and shouting during the season was quieter on Monday. The loudest noise was the sound of a drill bit piercing the cinder block walls. Ferree, his father, Soojian and wrestling coach Greg Hazelhofer were hanging blank record boards on the wall next to the ones that have been filled up over the long and successful history of Atascadero wrestling.
Ferree has already seen an increase in interest from younger wrestlers anxious to make their marks.
“One of the things about this room is all the history you have. I’m on the first board. Every wrestler from then on I have either wrestled with or coached.” Ferree said. “I have a freshman kid in my class. He said, ‘I want to get my name on the wall.’ ”
Ferree points at the “State Placewinners” board and looks at Soojian.
“That is an elite group of human beings right there. That’s an unbelievable accomplishment,” Ferree said.
Just above Soojian’s name on the board is Jack Robinett. Soojian said the 2008 placewinner helped him reach his goal this season by coming into the wrestling room and kicking his butt. Soojian hopes to inspire others and one day to return to the wrestling room to teach and help others feel what he felt on that Saturday in Bakersfield.
And the ride isn’t over yet. Soojian plans to compete at the Montana Open in Billings, Mont., on April 2. Soojian said he plans on giving up wrestling to play football at the University of La Verne, a Division III school, making next week’s tournament the final chance to add to his wrestling legacy.
“I hope the guys that come in here the next five or six years will talk and say, ‘Yeah I have heard of that Tannen guy,’ ” Soojian said. “I hope that lasts. That would be cool.”
For more photos and videos of Tannen Soojian’s journey though the CIF tournaments, check out the Atascadero Wrestling Club Facebook Page.
Honorable Mentions for County Wrestler of the Year
Blake Irysh, Sr., Paso Robles (285)
Isaiah Rocha, Sr., Arroyo Grande (138)
Alexis Garcia (Girls), Jr., Nipomo (Heavyweight)