Each year, the Tacoma Dome is the sight for plenty of joyous celebrations as all six state wrestling tournaments are combined for the Mat Classic.
Those finishing the weekend with their hands raised in victory will never forget the moment and, for many on the losing end, the event sticks with them as a driving force.
The will to return to the top of the podium and the desire to overcome past heartbreak has another crop of Twin Harbors wrestlers ready to descend upon the dome in hopes of returning with hardware and the glory that goes with it.
A total of 53 wrestlers from eight schools will represent the Twin Harbors at the Mat Classic on Friday and Saturday. There are plenty of story lines, but no matter how each wrestler enters their tournament, the hope is to end it with an unforgettable celebration.
Montesano wrestlers Austin Cain and Taylor Rupe ended last season with their hands raised high under the bright dome lights as champions. Now, they return with targets on their backs. Cain ended a drought that had lasted since the first time “Family Feud” aired when he became Montesano’s first champion since 1976 by winning the 152-pound title last season. Rupe followed shortly after with a title at 285. The seniors return to try an do a feat that may be harder than winning the first one — repeat.
“The second one is hard,” Montesano coach Jeff Klinger said. “Everyone is shooting for you now and you are the hunted. For both Austin and Taylor, we haven’t made it about defending your championship. I have just been talking to them about doing their best. If we perform at our best, good things are going to happen.”
Cain experienced the heartbreak of a finals loss two years ago and it fueled his championship run a season ago. The bracket for the 2017 version of the Mat Classic for Cain may be a bit easier as he is the only returning place-winner from the 2016 tournament at 160. The senior will still have plenty of challenges, but his hard work this season has paid off. Cain defeated last year’s champion at 160, Vashon Island’s Adrian St. Germain, 13-2 earlier this season. Germain went down to 152 for the Mat Classic.
“That kind of put people on notice that Austin was bringing it this year and they cleared out of his weight class a bit,” Klinger said. “We like our draw. Austin is a smart wrestler and if he is on, good things will happen for him.”
Rupe has a stacked bracket with six returning state participants. He may be ranked No. 1 according to www.washingtonwrestlingreport.com, but Rupe will have plenty of competition on his way to try an become a four-time state placer.
“(Rupe) has been working harder and harder each time and I think he is in the best shape he has been right here at the end,” Klinger said. “He has been tested and has a lot of overtime matches. It comes down to how bad these guys want it.”
Montesano finished fourth as a team in the 1A tournament last season and will look to improve on that finish this weekend. The key to improving Monte’s score may be in the Bulldogs who came up short rather than the returning champs. Senior Jacob Ellefson and junior Tony Williams each have come up short in a final match with Ellefson falling in a final in 2015 and Williams taking second in 2016.
“When you win a state championship, you are at the top of your game and you definitely feel that way,” Klinger said. “When you lose that state finals, you really aren’t that far away. You don’t realize how close you were, you are just mad you lost. That burns and does drive you a bit more.”
A second-round loss to Vashon Island’s Logan Nelson in the 170-pound bracket at the 2016 Mat Classic has burned in the mind of Hoquiam’s Artimus Johnson since he stepped off the mat with a third-place finish. Johnson battled his way back to third in 2016, but he is not ready to settle during his senior campaign. Even with nine other state participants returning to compete at 182, Johnson feels his preparation has made him the favorite. Agreeing with Johnson is www.washingtonwrestlingreport.com, which puts him as the No. 1 ranked wrestler at 182.
“I’m going out to dominate my opponent and to show how much I work and how much it means to me to win,” Johnson said. “I’ve worked my butt off in the offseason and during the season just to get to this moment and I think it is my year. Every night, I’m working out before I go to bed, just trying to prepare myself the best that I can do.”
While some were frustrated with the color of their medal last season, for Aberdeen girls Faith Cardenas and Alex Wilson, leaving without a medal set a goal for this season. The Bobcats will have a total of six girls on the mats on Friday, a number that excites coach Craig Yakovich considering Aberdeen had just one girl only two years ago.
“Just to see the increase in girls coming down there is showing that if you get in the wrestling room and you put in hard work it is an opportunity for anybody to try and qualify,” Yakovich said. “With Faith and Alex, they want to make it into the second day and medal this year. They have been there and experienced it and they didn’t medal last year, so just getting there wasn’t going to be good enough for those two this year. It was one of the things that was pushing them all year long.”
Aberdeen’s Emily Wharton will make her third-straight appearance at the Mat Classic this weekend when she competes at 235 pounds. Wharton finished second at 190 in 2016 and will have plenty of pressure to return to a title match. The senior finished third at regionals with her only loss coming to No. 1 ranked Abby Lees of Washougal. Lees has made a final each of the past three seasons, but is on the other side of the bracket from Wharton.
Yakovich said he is excited to see what Wharton can do at state, but said he feels a few of his girls may have a chance to make some noise under the radar, including junior Karli Heikkila.
The tournament with the biggest contingent of athletes from the Twin Harbors will be the 1B/2B tournament with wrestlers from North Beach, Ocosta, Raymond and South Bend. Both Joseph Lewis from South Bend and North Beach’s Seth Bridge finished fourth in their respective weights last season and will look to improve this weekend. However, the roads for both wrestlers will filled with the toughest of competition.
Lewis, who isn’t ranked in the top six at 132, will have to face the No. 4 and No. 2 just to get to the semifinals. Bridge’s path to glory could be a bit easier as he is currently ranked third and has only the No. 6 wrestler as the only other ranked competitor on his side of the bracket.
Raymond’s Tristan Hamlin was the only 2B regional champion with a win in the 126-pound final, while Aberdeen’s Tyler Souphommanichanh was the only 2A regional champ coming away with the title at 126 pounds.
Ellefson, Williams, Cain, Johnson and Rupe all came away with regional titles, while Wilson, Heikkila and Hoquiam’s Jenna Doll each won a title in the girls regional.