By Michael Carman
Peninsula Daily News
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Tyler Gale, Port Angeles (106 pounds)
Sebastian Morales, Forks (106 pounds)
Ozzy Swagerty, Port Angeles (126 pounds)
Kaylee Ditlefsen, Sequim (130 pounds)
Nanito Sanchez, Forks (132 pounds)
Ricky Barragan, Forks (138 pounds)
Brooke Peterson, Forks (145 pounds)
Matt Cain, Port Townsend (152 pounds)
Matt Robbins, Port Angeles (182 pounds)
Miguel Morales, Forks (285 pounds)
Roberto Coronel, Port Angeles (285 pounds)
Coach: Bob Wheeler, Forks
Cheers erupt from all corners of the Tacoma Dome when the stands are full, the default condition at the popular two-day event that has averaged 22,000 spectators the past few years.
With matches running simultaneously across the floor, results, encouragement and bits of trivia from the announcer's table blast through the dome's speakers.
It's hard to hear, hard to think clearly, but under these lights, in these conditions, and with the pressure of a season's worth of work on the line, Joel Ward, the All-Peninsula Wrestling MVP, shined.
Ward shook off a sluggish start to his senior season, bringing his best effort at the most opportune time to finish with the highest state placement of any North Olympic Peninsula grappler by taking second-place medal in the 220-pound weight class.
“Every year he has come on and wrestled well when it comes to the state tournament,” longtime Spartans head coach Bob Wheeler said.
Ward was a three-time state participant during his four years wrestling for the Spartans.
He went 1-2 in the 195-pound division as a sophomore, after qualifying for state by winning the subregional and regional wrestling tournaments.
One of his state defeats came by pin fall to Chelan's Asa Schwartz, a wrestler who would become a familiar foe for Ward.
Ward's junior season saw him win subregional and regional titles and take home a state medal for third-place after falling to Schwartz 7-1 in the semifinals.
Ward began his senior season over the weight limit for his preferred 220-pound division by almost 20 pounds.
Having Ward come into practice out of shape surprised Wheeler.
“He's always been one that's been very gung-ho about wrestling so it was a little strange to see him come in like that this year,” Wheeler said.
With grapplers restricted to following a weight-loss plan as a safety precaution, Ward wasn't able to utilize methods to drop weight quickly like wrestlers could in the not-so-distant past.
He couldn't complete conditioning work wearing a sauna suit or a garbage bag, a popular trick, that often leads to dangerously elevated body temperatures.
“If it was going to be for Joel this season, it was going to be according to the weight-loss plan,” Wheeler said.
In the 285-pound class, Ward racked up two fourth-place finishes at the Forks Invitational and at the Mount Baker Invitational in December.
He stuck to the plan, trimmed the weight and was able to get on the mat at the correct weight.
Once back under the lights, Ward tapped in to his aggressive style of grappling.
Wrestling at 220 in January, Ward picked up a fourth-place finish at the Washington State Wrestling Foundation's Gut Check Challenge, in which Forks was one of just one of two Class 1A schools competing against previous state placing competitors from much larger schools.
“The level of competition in that tournament is actually tougher than the state tournament,” Wheeler said.
Ward kept it up, picking up an important pin in a match against Hoquiam to help the Spartans take the Evergreen League title.
“He was like a bull,” Wheeler said.
“Actually they [his teammates] gave him a nickname, Rhino, because he likes to charge in there and take it to his opponents.
“As we went on, he got his head on a little straighter, and during the season he had some bumps, but like he seemed to do every year, he came on in February [when the wrestling postseason ramps up].”
In referencing “bumps,” Wheeler was referring to an out-of-character fourth-place finish at subregionals and a second-place finish at the regional state qualifier.
But at state, Ward rolled through with two pins on day one to reach the semifinals.
He then won 5-2 in a rematch of the previous year's third/fourth-place match, again besting Teigan Glidewell of Freeman.
In the state final, Ward ended his career with a 4-0 loss to Schwartz, who will play football at Linfield College next season.
“I wrestled him as best I could,” Ward said after the match.
“He's a really tough wrestler, probably the best 220 in all the classes, and I couldn't get an opening on him.
“I'm not too disappointed; I don't think I could have done anything differently [to beat him].
“He only beat me by a few points.”
A few months removed from the season, Wheeler was philosophical.
“Looking back on the season, I think he surprised himself,” Wheeler said.
“Ultimately, the biggest thing for Joel was he grew up and is a much better person as a senior than he was a freshman.”
Ward picked up his diploma at Forks' graduation on June 7 and received a scholarship from the Quillayute Valley Scholarship Auction.
He'll train for a career in the state's workforce program.