Blaine wrestler Caleb Johnson's quest for a state title has been a long time in the making.
Ten years ago, Johnson started in Blaine's youth wrestling program. He's been competing with senior teammate and good friend Justin Belding ever since, and Borderites coach Craig Foster has trained the pair all the way through. Second grade was when Johnson's dream of one day becoming a state champion began. Ten years later, he has his best chance.
"I have some pretty high goals," Johnson said. "I want to place higher than I did last year. That is my goal. I want to make it to the final match at state. To do that, I need to work hard, I need to lift hard and I need to condition hard. I got to do everything to the best of my ability and just put everything outside my mind but my goal."
Much change has transpired since Johnson reached the 195-pound Class 2A semifinals and eventually settled for fifth place at the Mat Classic last year.
For one, Johnson has packed on a few pounds and plans to wrestle at 220 this season. Blaine has dropped down to Class 1A, which changes the landscape of Johnson's postseason competition, and the Borderites, on paper, seem to be a real contender in the 1A ranks. Johnson also is taking on a leadership role as team captain with Belding and junior Jonathan Stewart.
The Blaine senior sees it as the perfect way to finish his wrestling career.
"It's really exciting," said Johnson. "Last year we had a lot of guys at certain weights. To finally be spread out and everybody filling a spot, it's just really nice, because it makes you a better dual team. It makes you a better tournament team."
Every year Johnson has inched closer to reaching a state final. He struggled a bit his freshman year, but learned plenty under a strong senior class. Johnson reached the Tacoma Dome as a sophomore but didn't place. Last year, he broke into the top half of his weight class and earned a fifth-place medal.
Foster has seen steady improvements in his senior, and he said it starts with Johnson not trying to do too much.
"His whole career, basically since he was young, it sounds funny, but it's been trying to get him to do less and stay within himself," Foster said. "I think when he was younger, he thought he had to pin everybody, so he'd go out and make mistakes and get himself pinned. It's been a process of sort of less is more and eliminating all the stuff he can beat himself with, and I think we got that down pretty good."
Johnson stood out as one of the more athletic, agile upper-weight-class wrestlers at 195 last year. Moving up to 220 could be a real benefit.
"He's a good looking 220-pounder," Foster said. "A lot of those guys are push and shove, but he can wrestle. He can attack legs, which is one of his strengths. He can shoot and take you down."
He also has extra motivation. Johnson said being one win away from wrestling for a state title "left a bitter taste" in his mouth. The feeling extended into the fall sports season when Blaine's football team, which Johnson is extremely passionate about, fell short of its own expectations.
And like Foster said, it's every senior's goal to leave school with some kind of state title.
"We had really high expectations for football and, having that go out earlier than we wanted to, it just kind of leaves another (bad) taste in your mouth," Johnson said. "We need to get it done this time, because we didn't get it done in football. I got to make it stand during the wrestling season, finish strong and try to place as high as I can, because this is my last opportunity to make a goal I've wanted since I was very very little."
The Borderites may have a better chance with its drop down in classification. Foster and Johnson both view it as a positive.
Blaine still maintains its rivalry with Mount Baker and Orting, which has historically dominated the 1A ranks, moved up to 2A this year.
"I think it could benefit us pretty good," Johnson said. "Baker dropped down to 1A, and we love that rivalry. Across the state, I think it will be a little better for us. We're pretty excited about it. We think if we bring enough guys to the state tournament, we could do some pretty cool things."
This season will be bitter sweet for Foster, who has logged more hours than he can possibly count coaching Johnson and Belding the last 10 years.
It will be more sweet than bitter, though, if Johnson and Blaine wrestle to their ability.
"He is really motivated," said Foster of Johnson. "We as coaches talk about it, and we think that the Caleb that we know, if he wrestles the way we want him to wrestle and the way he understands now how to wrestle, I think he will be really hard to beat at the 1A state level. But, if he doesn't (win a title), he could make a mistake, too. But, I'm real hopeful. I believe in him and think he can go all the way."
Reach Andrew Lang at email@example.com or call 360-756-2862.
Reach ANDREW LANG at firstname.lastname@example.org or call ext. 862.