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Missing two top wrestlers, U-Hi finishes second

TACOMA – University did everything it could to enter the State 3A wrestling championships the same way it left 4A last season, but the Titans couldn’t overcome an opponent they couldn’t meet on the mat.

According to coach Don Owen, U-Hi lost sophomore 125-pounder Ryan Gabel because of an “extremely controversial” doctor’s decision before the tournament started Friday.

The Titans battled gallantly, sending five to the finals, and briefly earning a small lead over Enumclaw before the Hornets’ depth won out 145½-129½.

Losing Gabel and Brandon Byers, who was hurt last week, conservatively cost the Titans 20 points, maybe as many as 40.

“It wasn’t for me, it’s always for the team,” U-Hi 215-pound champion Jake Laden said after his 5-2 decision over North Central’s Anthony Whitmarsh. “Ryan Gabel and Brandon Byers, I wrestled for them today. We would have won if we would have had them. It’s all about them.

“It was definitely adversity, but I feel overall we were tougher. We’ve always been tough. I think we were the toughest team here. Who would have thought we would have been that high up with two of our best kids out, state placers?”

That was the theme for the Titans, who picked up three individual titles after the emotional start to the tournament.

“I don’t know the specifics,” said John Miller, assistant executive director of the WIAA. “(Gabel) had a skin condition the doctors deemed contagious.”

At least five other wrestlers were not allowed to compete for similar reasons.

“Five doctors examined the young man,” Miller said. “They were unanimous he couldn’t continue to wrestle. They’re here to keep kids in the tournament.”

Owen, of course, saw it a little differently.

“I don’t know of a doctor that’s going to supersede the doctor that is treating him,” he said, explaining Gabel was on medication and only had a small, dry scab. “I would say there isn’t one kid in this building right now that isn’t in great jeopardy if they drag him in to a committee that would throw my kid out. I have been in wrestling 30 years and, personally, I have never see anything like that.

“It put our team in a position that was almost impossible. But they did whatever they could. I’m proud of them for that.”

The Titans got off to a good start with Tyler Clark beating Andrew Cunningham of Bonney Lake 3-2 at 112.

“At first it put us down, because we’re missing two wrestlers,” Clark said. “We decided to wrestle for them. … We had to put our hearts into it.

At 119, Brandon Matlock lost to Riley Miller of Kelso 7-2.

Enumclaw wrestled well, so the Titans didn’t have to dwell on the what-ifs over losses. That was good because Jacob Fry lost a heartbreaker at 171 pounds.

Fry had a takedown with 10 seconds left only give up a reversal at the buzzer, losing to Lucas Huyber of Auburn Mountainview 7-6.

That made it hard for Dustin Johnson at 189 pounds as he went into his match with Peter Johnson of Bishop Blanchet, who was undefeated in 41 matches.

“I wanted to cry, honestly,” Johnson said. “Then my coach told me, ‘Don’t let something that happened influence what you’re going to get done.’ I had to hold back some of the emotion.”

Johnson got a second-period escape for a 1-0 lead that held up until the closing seconds when he was called for a full Nelson, giving his foe a point. A takedown 30 seconds into overtime decided it.

“I’ve wanted this for four years,” Johnson said. “I’ve come to this tournament since I was a freshman with wide eyes looking at the people that took first, wishing I was part of that. I worked for it. It really means a little.”

There was an emotional win for the Greater Spokane League at 140 pounds when Shadle Park’s Darren Bunke finished an 8-4 decision of Brady Mast of Sedro-Woolley. It was the first Highlanders title since 1994, when 190-pounder Craig Pointer won.

“It feels awesome,” said Bunke, who was fifth the last two years. “It felt good being the first state placer in 10 years. It feels really good to be the first state champion in 17 years.”

He got a wake-up call early in the match when Mast scored a takedown.

“That gave me more drive,” Bunke said. “I had to work harder. It’s a mental game (and) he thought he had it. I knew I had it the whole time before I went into it.”

The other GSL finalist was Jared Berlinger of North Central, who lost 4-3 to Dyland Hyder of Yelm at 125 pounds.

Overall, though, the talk was about U-Hi’s near miss.

“It was a gallant effort,” Owen said, tipping his hat to Enumclaw. “The guys hung tough. Any time you run five guys into the finals of the state tournament, they came to wrestle.”