THE ONE WORD that pops up the most at state: mental.
No, it’s not in reference to how crazy one has to be to put themselves through the grind of a full high school wrestling season (judging by all the injuries, I’d say you pretty much have to be a masochist).
Rather, the talk is about how mentally challenging it is to succeed at Mat Classic.
To many coaches and wrestlers, success at state lies between the ears.
There’s the bright lights of the cavernous Tacoma Dome, the unending chorus of whistles from all directions, matches every few hours and, of course, a collection of the best wrestlers in the state.
And all of it is vying for your attention.
“The stress level” is the most difficult thing about state, Sequim assistant coach Kyle Keith said.
“It’s a big new place. It’s kind of intimidating. A lot of people come in to the Dome thinking everybody here is better that when they wrestled before, but they are the same guys. They forget that they are here too, that they are that good.”
Keith is as about as well versed as they come on the trials of competing at state.
The former 215-pound wrestler is one of two state champions to come out of Sequim, having won the Class 3A title as a senior in 2002.
“It’s the toughest thing you’ve ever done,” Keith said. “You have to have your technique, your conditioning, you’ve got to be stronger than the other guys, and you have to have it in your head and heart.”
Port Townsend 189-pounder Gatlin Hanna couldn’t stop using the phrase “mental game” after his eighth-place finish in Class 1A.
The senior, whose twin brother, Richard, also competed at state, fell prey to a quick pin after being ahead for most of the match in the consolation bracket, then suffered a narrow 9-7 defeat in the seventh-place match after leading that match as well.
To him, the difference between taking third or fourth and finishing eighth, as he did on Saturday, came down to a few slight mental lapses.
“I lost to a guy that got fourth at regionals, and I got first at our regionals,” Hanna said, intimating that it shouldn’t have happened.
“You try not to look up. There’s just too much stuff going on, and you’ve got to stay focused. It’s pretty much mental.”
Sequim heavyweight Thomas Gallagher certainly could relate to Hanna’s frustration.
The junior had his man nearly pinned in the first round of a consolation bracket match, but had forgotten that those rounds last only one minute (as opposed to the championship bracket).
So rather than trying to quickly put his opponent to the mat, Gallagher patiently tried to ease him down and the clock ran out.
He eventually fell prey to a pin himself in the next round, dropping to the fifth-place match rather than wrestling for third or fourth.
“One little mistake [at state] can cost you what could be a third place down into a fifth place or sixth place,” Gallagher lamented while sitting alone on the Tacoma Dome’s concrete floor following the loss.
Port Angeles head coach Erik Gonzalez, who’s Rider boys went five years without making it to the second day before this weekend, agreed completely.
He pointed to Roughrider Adam Raemer’s 14-0 consolation bracket loss less than two hours after his crushing semifinal defeat.
“The margin for error is so slim,” Gonzalez said. “The difference between the placers and the non-placers is so small. Obviously there are some kids that are just studs, but otherwise it is a mental thing.
“I think you saw that in Adam’s match. Mentally he couldn’t recover from losing the opportunity to go to the finals [in the semis]. So he took a pretty good beating.”
Luckily, Raemer recovered in time to claim fifth place in his final match of the day, beating White River’s Alec Williams 7-0.
The junior, whose forehead was dotted with beads of blood and sweat, agreed with his coach’s assessment.
“I had a disappointing semifinals match, and had a hard time getting over it mentally,” Raemer said. “It’s hard to come back after getting tossed around. But I was able to overcome it in my last match, so I’m happy.”
Lost in all the bluster of individual success at the Mat Classic last weekend was the team marks put up by the Peninsula schools.
All but one team, Forks, improved upon its team standing from a year ago, led by Port Angeles’ jump from 43rd in 3A last year to 13th with 42 points.
It was the first time the Riders had broken the top 20 this decade, with the next highest finish being 21st in 2003.
Despite that, Gonzalez still wasn’t completely satisfied.
“We’re still not where we want to be,” he said after the tournament. “We want to be competing for the top 10 every year.”
Port Townsend also made a big jump from being tied at 44th in the 2A tournament last year to taking 20th in the 1A version this year.
Sequim’s 27th-place finish (26 points) in the 2A tournament topped last year’s 35th-place mark.
Meanwhile, the Spartans dropped slightly from 11th in 2008 to 14th this winter.
For those scoring at home, this year’s team state champs were Lake Stevens (4A), Enumclaw (3A), Deer Park (2A), Orting (1A), Republic (B) and Sedro Woolley (Girls).
Nobody is in a better position to compare the Roughriders’ two state champions than Port Angeles’ Gonzalez
After all, he coached them both: 125-pounder Julio Garcia in his first season as coach in 2003 and heavyweight John Camp this year.
As Gonzalez tells it, there was a whole lot of difference between the two, beginning with about 160 pounds.
“Julio was speed and quickness, John is power, obviously,” Gonzalez said.
“Julio had amazing technique. Nothing against John — heavyweights aren’t know for their technique — but he’s definitely not a technician. So he’s a totally different wrestler in that respect.”
Garcia went 39-1 on his way to claiming a Class 4A title, with many of his victories coming by way of points or technical fall (beating an opponent by 15-plus points).
Of course, Camp’s been all about putting opponents on the mat, going an astonishing 40-0, all by pin.
“He’s as focussed as I’ve ever seen a kid,” Gonzalez said of Camp. “What John’s done in terms of his pin record, Julio couldn’t compare to that. To win 40 matches all by pins, obviously you can’t get any better than that.”
The Peninsula had a pair of heavyweights place at the Mat Classic in Sequim’s Gallagher and Port Angeles’ Camp.
As was reported in the PDN last week by sports editor Brad LaBrie, the two rivals began training with each other a week into the postseason. And from the looks of things, it certainly paid off.
Gallagher, who hadn’t even reached state as a sophomore, came out and won his first two matches on his way to a sixth-place finish in 2A. Obviously, Camp didn’t do too badly either.
“It gave me that extra little push,” Gallagher said. “I wish I had done it more. Maybe if I had worked with him for a week longer, two weeks earlier, I’d be in the finals.”
Added Sequim head coach Len Borchers, “I think that helped, and I think working with coach Kyle Keith all season helped, too. Having a guy that size really helps with mechanics.”
PT’s Olympic push
Port Townsend placed three wrestlers in its first year in the 1A tournament, the most by the Redskins this decade, and possibly all time.
Postseason success was part of the plan when Port Townsend made the decision to stick with the Olympic League, which is populated by 2A and 3A schools.
The idea was that a higher level of competition during the regular season would make Redskin teams battle-tested going into the playoffs.
So could it be that the Olympic League got these Redskins ready for regionals and Mat Classic?
Port Townsend coach Joey Johnson thinks so, and his team’s three state placements seems to back it up.
“I think it helps a lot,” he said. “We don’t wrestle a whole lot of 1A competition, so I think we’re getting the best competition we can get.”
Four for Forks
Forks senior Luke Dixon’s state title further distanced the Spartans from the rest of the Peninsula high school wrestling contingent.
The Spartans have now claimed five individual state crowns with Dixon’s triumph on Saturday, three more than the next closest schools in the area (Port Angeles and Sequim).
The 215-pounder ended a nine-year drought for Forks, which hadn’t had a champion since Kelly Banner (135) in 2000.
Kyle Weakley (125) and Ben Porter (168) each went 4-0 at the 1992 Mat Classic for Forks, while Pat Nelson won the 158-pound division in 1991 for the Spartans’ first title.
“We probably have had a couple wrestlers that are technically better [than Dixon at Forks],” longtime Spartans coach Bob Wheeler said.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had anybody any better at just sheer power, and determination to control the match. He’s just a tough kid, a strong kid.”
Girls are all right
Port Angeles 135-pounder Jessica Cooper became the first two-time placer for the Riders in girls tournament history. Of course, that is a brief history we’re talking about.
The multi-classification tournament has been around only three years. So far, the Peninsula has already had athletes place four separate times, with Cooper taking fourth in 2008, Sequim’s Sarah Keltonic was sixth this year, and Sequim’s Summer Steenberg was second at 135 in 2007.
Just a few more Peninsula wrestling tidbits from this weekend:
• For the first time in this decade, and possibly ever, all four Peninsula schools had multiple boys place at state.
• Two Peninsula wrestlers won state crowns the same year for only the third time in Mat Classic history. As was stated above, the first time came in 1992 when Forks’ Kyle Weakley and Ben Porter each took first. Kelly Banner of Forks and Brian Gilliam of Sequim each won titles in 2000.
• More boys wrestlers placed (11) this year than in any other this decade. The previous high was eight in 2006.
• Sequim’s boys leads the Peninsula in placers this decade with 22. Forks is next with 14, followed by Port Townsend at 13 and Port Angeles at five. It should be noted that the Riders competed in the 4A tournament up until 2007.
• The Peninsula’s overall record this weekend: 39-51.
Matt Schubert is the outdoors and sports columnist for the Peninsula Daily News. His column appears on Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at [email protected]