It’s the Wednesday before Mat Classic XXII, the state high school wrestling tournament, gets under way in the Tacoma Dome.
At University High, that means it’s the final practice at the school. Thursday morning the team boards a bus and heads across the state. But while there are just 10 Titans entered in the Class 4A field, the room is filled with wrestlers, all working hard, all pushing to get the last full measure from their last full workout.
Coach Don Owen has the team doing buddy sprints. Wrestlers alternate running the length of the room with running the length of the room carrying their practice partner on their backs
It’s a fitting way for this team to wrap things up.
“We’ve always had good leaders in this program, but this group, especially this bunch of seniors, are different,” Owen explains. “This group of young men are servant leaders. They lead by being of service to their teammates. To them, it’s all about helping one another, encouraging one another, helping each other be the best they can be.”
While his wrestlers catch their breath, the longtime coach addresses the group. He explains about what he expects from everyone going to Tacoma. He calls on assistant coach Dave Orndorff to discuss the start of practice for the freestyle season, which starts Tuesday. He talks about this team’s closeness and its toughness – qualities any coach covets.
It’s clear that this has been a special year for the veteran coach.
“I am so proud to be associated with this team,” Owen said later. “I’ve been coaching for a long time. I’ve coached in three different states. This has been the nicest group of young men I’ve ever been associated with. It’s been an honor for me to be able to coach this group. This is a team that I will always remember.”
On the wall of the Titans’ practice room, across from the Wall of Fame where former state placers hold a place of honor alongside a plaque commemorating the 2005 state championship, a large poster shows a list of the team’s goals for the 2009-10 season.
“That’s something we do every year – and some people don’t understand why you would do something like that,” Owen said. “But those are the goals this group of kids set out for themselves this year.”
It’s an ambitious list. Beat North Central by 20 points, place in the top two at the Tri-State Tournament, win the Lake Stevens Invitational, beat Mead, win the Northwest Classic for the third time, capture the Rocky Mountain Classic tournament in Missoula and keep the trophy from the Battle of the Bone match with Central Valley.
Each has been checked off, as has the entry for winning the junior varsity district championship, the Greater Spokane League championship and the District and Regional titles. So has the entry for the goal of sending 10 wrestlers to state.
Of the 19 goals listed on the poster, four went unmet – the team did not meet its goal of winning the Inland Empire tournament, placing among the top two freshmen teams at the Mt. Spokane or Spokaloo tournaments, or winning the M2 Mallet tourney at Rogers.
Two goals lie ahead. Winning the state tournament and having three wrestlers crowned academic state champions.
At the beginning of the season, back when the team goals were first proposed, the Titans were not a team picked to accomplish very many of those lofty goals.
“They weren’t, no,” Owen said. “I don’t think very many people understood just what kind of individuals these kids are. For a team to win at Tri-State, you really need to get seeded well to have any kind of a chance and we weren’t. For them to finish in the top two is a big accomplishment.”
The Titans will not be overlooked this weekend.
Freshman Ryan Gabel, the regional runner-up, faces a tough test at 103 pounds, a division with five upperclassmen ranked ahead of him. Gabel placed sixth at Tri-State, showing that he wrestle with his state competition.
Junior Tyler Clark and Central Valley junior Jarod Maynes wrestled for the regional 112 title, with Maynes earning a 3-1 decision in Richland. Clark was knocked out of the winner’s bracket at Tri-State by top-ranked Josh Heinzer of Lake Stevens and battled back to place fourth.
Junior Brandon Matlock lost a 7-4 decision to Clark in the regional semifinal at 112, then scored back-to-back pins to earn a state berth and giving the Titans two potential state placers in one weight class.
Senior Kevin Harder lost to Ferris’ Brandon Riehle in the regional final at 135, but don’t be surprised to see the GSL rivals meet once more, this time in the state finals. Riehle is ranked No. 1 in the state; Harder No. 3.
Seniors Ryan Zumwalt and Jake Mason, at 152 and 160, respectively, are the top-ranked wrestlers in the state in their weight divisions.
Junior Dustin Johnson was singled out by Owen earlier this season for his hard work and determination. The 189-pounder is ranked No. 3 in the state and it will likely take an act of Congress to keep him off the medal stand and Owen considers him a threat to stand on the top step.
Junior Jake Laden was similarly lauded by his coach. After wrestling at 215 much of the season, Laden moved up to heavyweight for the postseason and won the regional title. He enters state ranked No. 4 and was seeded to meet top-ranked Nick Conlan of Auburn in the second round Friday.
Rounding out the state squad are Dalton Cosby, third place last week at 285 pounds, and Brandon Byers, second at 119.
“These kids are brothers – that’s the kind of closeness they’ve developed,” Owen said.
“I know they don’t want to disappoint themselves, but I think it’s even more important to each of them that they don’t let their teammates down. That’s what drives them.” he said.