University High School wrestling coach Don Owen is not one for comparisons.
Comparisons, however, are inevitable between his State 4A champion Titan teams – the first in 2005 and second last weekend during Mat Classic XXII in Tacoma.
Both had two individual state champions, a total of nine state placers (and were an overtime loss away from a 10th) and a Zumwalt on the medals stand.
“My brother (Nick, who placed as a junior and the next year as well), ended up winning the other one,” said Ryan Zumwalt, who wound up a four-time medalist. “Me, Jake Mason and Kevin Harder, probably since sixth grade always dreamed about (also) winning a state team title. We made it a reality.”
While there are similarities, several things set this year’s championship effort apart.
It began Friday with what longtime state wrestling observers believe was an unprecedented 10 successive wins in first round matches by the 10 Titan state qualifiers. It included a remarkable eight top-four finishes and ended with a third-highest point total – 156.5 – scored by a 4A school in the 58-year history of the event.
And it made Owen just the second Greater Spokane League coach to bring home two team titles to a league that now has seven overall.
The credit, Owen said on Saturday, strictly belongs to the wrestlers
“I wish the coaching staff could take the credit,” he said. “I have told people all year long a janitor in our building could take these kids to a state title. They are fantastic kids. They started with a dream to win the state championship and be champions every day and they’ve done that.”
Zumwalt (152 pounds) and two-time champion Mason (160) were this year’s two titlists, winning four straight matches apiece. Zumwalt breezed, Mason won in overtime twice, in the semifinals and finals. Owen said they trained so hard and were so dialed in, he believed they would both be champions.
“I’ve always wanted to be a really good wrestler,” Mason said after toughing it out on Saturday. “I love the competitiveness: The pain as well as the spoils of victory.”
That might have been the team anthem. After the amazing first round at state, four Titans shook off the pain of defeat to reap the spoils by winning three or four in a row and two others bounced back from semifinal losses to help secure the team triumph.
103 – Freshman Ryan Gabel went unplaced, but was 12 seconds away from a semifinal berth and top-six finish before losing his Friday quarterfinal in overtime.
112 – Juniors Tyler Clark and Brandon Matlock had the misfortune of being bracketed with Lake Stevens’ state champion Josh Heinzer. Matlock lost to him in the quarters and would eventually place eighth. Clark lost in the semifinals after winning twice, but came back to win twice more, including 4-3 over nemesis Jarod Maynes of Central Valley (also a junior) for third and fourth.
“That was one of the toughest weights there’s been in a long time,” said Owen. “Tyler had done an incredible amount of training and getting his mind right. Even in the loss to Heinzer he didn’t back away.”
119 – Junior Brandon Byers was one of those who won three straight matches after losing in the second round – in overtime. But he won two overtime matches and 4-3 before losing 7-5 in the match for third and fourth.
“Every match went to the wire,” said Owen. “If I have to send him out one more time I’d have to get a pacemaker.” For every mistake, said the coach, he would fight back and make up for it.
135 – Harder, close with fellow seniors and champions Zumwalt and Mason, got caught in a “funky deal,” said Owen. “Other than that he put together a solid, solid tournament.”
While scrambling for a takedown, Harder somehow was pressed airborne, got put on his back and pinned in match No. 2. He, too, won three straight and placed fourth.
189 – Junior Dustin Johnson reached the semifinals with solid wins, but lost in another unfortunate pairing, against three-time Tahoma state champion Nick Bayer. He bounced back with a win before finishing fourth.
“He came back and wrestled really tough after suffering a bad loss,” said Owen. “He and Jake Laden work so hard and are year-around wrestlers.”
285 – As for Laden, also a junior, Owen said, “he has the heart of a lion. He wrestled every good heavyweight in this tournament.” And he wound up beating senior teammate Dalton Cosby in the match for third and fourth. That showed the measure of this year’s Titan lineup. Both had come back from second-round losses to win three in a row to set up the placing match.
Laden’s loss was 2-1 in overtime to state runner-up Nick Conlon of Auburn. Four of his five wins were by a point – twice in overtime, 2-1 over Cosby. Cosby, master of the cradle, was involved in three one-point decisions. “Assistant Dave Orndorf gets much of the credit for bringing him along and developing a good philosophy that works for him,” said Owen.
OK, so give a little bit of the credit for this year’s state team title to the Titan coaching staff. But as Owen pointed out for several years, this is a special group.
“It’s so much fun to coach guys who buy in like these have,” he said. “I told every kid, ‘We can win the state championship, but you have to win the next match.’ And, boy, they came and wrestled their hearts out.”