At one point of his state-championship match on Saturday, fortunes looked bleak for Montesano senior Mateo Sanchez.
Down 4-0 in the final minute of a grueling 182-pound final against Toppenish’s Kaiden Kintner — the reigning 170-pound state champion — Sanchez was faced with the possibility of seeing his longtime dream of a state title slip away for the second-straight season.
So how did the Bulldogs senior score multiple points in the final minute against a former state-champion, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds?
As it turned out, the answer involved some persistence, wrestling savvy and fortuitous timing.
Being one of the higher seeds in his weight class, Sanchez earned a first-round bye for Friday’s opening rounds and faced Connell’s Adrian Magaña in a rematch of last season’s semifinal in a state-quarterfinal matchup.
“Our draw was the worst draw we could get,” Montesano head coach Jeff Klinger said, referencing Sanchez’s one-point victory over Magaña in 2022.
As if it was a prognostication of things to come, Sanchez trailed 4-0 to Magaña in the second round before rallying to earn a 10-8 victory.
In the semis, Sanchez “steamrolled” Nooksack Valley’s Shon Visser, according to Klinger, earning a pinfall victory with 27 seconds left in the third and final round.
In the final, Sanchez took on Kintner, who won the 1A 170-pound title at last year’s Mat Classic and moved up to 182 this season as one of powerhouse Toppenish’s crown jewels.
Sanchez trailed 4-0 before earning a point after Kintner was called for stalling for the second time in the match, setting up the dramatic final minute of the contest.
With tensions high and the Tacoma Dome crowd cheering him on, Sanchez made his move down three points with just over 30 seconds to go.
In a sequence that will be talked about in the Montesano hallways for years to come, Sanchez exhibited incredible wrestling acumen with a perfectly-timed reversal from a rear-standing position to put Kintner on his back and nearly get a pinfall victory.
The move earned Sanchez four points — two for the reversal and two for a near-fall — to take a 5-4 lead with 34 seconds left on the clock.
“The Toppenish kid tried to break him down near-side and Mateo hit a reversal-switch on him at the same time,” said Montesano assistant coach and Mateo’s father, Fidel Sanchez. “Kintner missed his arm and that allowed Mateo to fully turn to his right side and he caught him for the reversal and near-fall.”
“When Mateo reversed him, we all jumped up out of our chairs,” Klinger said, noting it appeared Sanchez had Kintner on his back for approximately four seconds. “I think (Kintner) was pinned, but I’m biased. I’ve got my arms around Fidel and (Monte assistant coach ) Tyler (Grajek) trying to keep them back because we’re crowding the mat … we wanted that pin so bad.”
Sanchez then had to play defense to preserve the victory.
Riding on top after a restart, Sanchez was warned for stalling, with a potential subsequent stalling infraction tying the match at 5-5.
In the final 15 seconds, Kintner was able to get to his feet while looking to escape the grasp of Sanchez to earn one point and tie the match. But Sanchez lifted Kintner off his feet and remained in control as time ran out, giving Sanchez and his coaches a rousing and emotional victory.
”I was thinking more strategy: What could we do to not to let this guy escape?” Fidel Sanchez said of the match’s final moments. “Mateo is very keen on those things. He’s a very smart wrestler, so he knew he had to just ride him out, hang on and try to look like he was working so he doesn’t get called for stalling, … that was huge.”
Mateo said the victory “was like a dream” and didn’t feel like it was real upon realizing a goal he had since he was wrestling in clubs as a youth.
After the buzzer sounded, Mateo hugged and celebrated with his father and the Montesano coaches before heading to the stands.
“I was just so happy I ran straight to my mom (Becky Sanchez) and couldn’t stop crying,” he said. “It was the best feeling I’ve had.”
Heading into the final match, Mateo said last season’s loss in the state final wasn’t the last thing on his mind, it wasn’t on his mind at all. In fact, it hasn’t been something he has thought about much at all this season as he has been focused on the task at hand: winning a state championship in his senior year.
“I never really thought about last year’s finals match,” he said. “Maybe a little bit at the start of the season I thought about it. But during the tournament I never even thought about it. … I just wanted to win my last match ever.”
With the victory, Sanchez ended his stellar prep career with 100 wins, fewer than 10 losses and a state title.
Mateo, who has won multiple tournament medals and competed at some of the nation’s top meets, said Saturday’s win tops them all.
“When you get your first-place medal on the podium (at state), it feels like you are on top of the world,” he said. “Everyone else on the podium is looking at you. All the cameras and all that stuff. It’s a good feeling knowing that all that hard work has paid off.”
As far as winning a state title, the three-sport standout said the achievement provided a measure of closure.
“It’s such an accomplishment,” he said. “We had a good football season but we weren’t state champions. Last year, I had a good wrestling season but wasn’t a state champion. This year, I had a good wrestling season and I was state champion. So it feels like I finally finished a season the way it should be finished.”
Though he has hung up his wrestling shoes, Mateo said the sport has helped him develop into the person he is today and has provided so much more that he could have hoped for.
“To me, it has taught me a lot about discipline, being mentally tough, being accountable, keeping myself on weight and eating how I should be. So it’s taught me a lot of responsibility,” he said. “It’s also provided me a lot of friendships. Just from wrestling camps, practices, tournaments. You just meet all these other kids from across the state. … The wrestling community is just like a big friendship.”
For his father, who coached at Hoquiam for several years, the championship represents the crowning moment of all the hard work and sacrifice that Mateo has put in to see the dream become reality.
“I spent a lot of time coaching other kids in Hoquiam. I was there for a long time as an assistant coach and for five years as head coach. I missed a lot of his wrestling early on when he was a little kid wrestling in club,” Fidel said. “So I made a choice to step away from Hoquiam wrestling to come over here and fully focus on him. That’s what I remembered when we were celebrating. Since age five, he’s been at a gym wrestling, weighing in, getting ready for matches, running into really tough kids, crying when he loses and celebrating when he wins. I guess it all culminated into that because that was the last match of his career and that’s what I was thinking about. All the sacrifices he’s done to get to where he’s at.”