First published in the Dec. 9 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.
As a former wrestler and longtime La Cañada High School wrestling coach, Justin Luthey has seen and been through it all, participating in prestigious tournaments and CIF Southern Section team and individual competitions that have established the program as one of the most competitive and consistent in Southern California.
“I just love wrestling so much,” said Luthey, a former LCHS athletic standout who took over the wrestling program in 2013. “I believe in the sport and want to help it grow.”
This year, Luthey has seen growth in one particular aspect of the program. So much so that he hasn’t been able to contain his excitement and has been telling everyone he knows: La Cañada has a girls’ dual team for the first time in school history.
“I just want to tell everyone about them,” he said. “They’re awesome and I want to keep this thing growing. I just want to see the energy snowball on campus and I want it to become a full-fledged program with its own levels, as well. We’ve just got to keep the momentum going.”
Luthey boasts 10 girls on the roster after never having more than three in his nine years at LCHS and each athlete “miraculously” fits into different weight classes. The Spartans are 7-4 in dual meets and placed in the prestigious El Monte Arroyo Tournament.
“We ended up knocking off Arroyo, which is one of the top teams in Southern California, and I’m just in shock,” Luthey said. “These girls are kicking butt and fighting so hard.”
The talented group is led by junior Kera Finnigan, who recently placed eighth in the 130-pound division at a highly-competitive amateur wrestling tournament called Freak Show in Las Vegas. The young Spartan also finished placed in a state tournament last year.
“She’s the unquestioned leader along with Kira [De Brito],” Luthey said. “She really was a few seconds away from winning [in her state match] but an unfortunate turn of events in the match [gave the opponent the lead]. I think that has given her confidence and knows that she belongs in the conversation and can win any match she wants to.”
The team is comprised of underclassmen, which means Luthey may have a complete squad again next year.
“It’s great because we have a solid foundation, and I think every single girl on the team is coming back,” he said.
Luthey credits former LCHS girls’ wrestlers and late coach Alexander Bache for the growing interest of wrestling from girls.
“[Former LCHS standout] Sophie Garcia was a pioneer in the sport and second is Alex Bache, who coached the girls for a long time and recently passed away.”
Though he refuses to take any credit, some of it has to go to Luthey for having built a solid foundation in the boys’ program, which he expects to be just as competitive as the girls this year with Cameron Fernando and Alex Mykalo returning as captains.
The boys’ team lost four talented wrestlers to graduation but has 10 returning athletes, giving La Cañada depth it doesn’t usually have.
“I feel like we’re deeper than we have been in previous years at a high level,” Luthey said. “We don’t just have a guy there [filling in a specific weight class]. We beat Arroyo and Santa Monica, who beat a Redondo High team that we lost to last year. We’ve never beaten Arroyo as a program and that team made it to [CIF] semifinals last year.”
Having boys’ and girls’ teams certainly has its benefits on the mat with each squad supporting and pushing each other to get better.
“A lot of the girls wrestle with some of our boys,” Luthey said. “One of the cool things about it is that the boys get to see the female athletes really working hard and competing on an equal playing field. I think that’s important for the development of the girls and the boys.
“It’s really cool to see the support the boys have for the girls. They don’t just see them as the stepsisters of the program. They’re equals.”
With the talent level and development over the past two months, Luthey has set lofty goals for his wrestlers.
“This could be a historic year with the individual success of the boys and girls,” Luthey said. “I think we can do that at the dual level, too. Right now, I’m just geeked up about our team, and I think the boys are excited, too.”