BELLINGHAM - Blaine senior 220-pound wrestler Caleb Johnson spent his last three Northwest Conference Wrestling Tournaments watching other league schools walk away with the conference title.
What hurt the most was the Borderites' second-place finishes each year, and knowing his team was oh-so close.
Johnson and the Borderites finally got their title. Blaine may be one of the smallest schools in the NWC, but it didn't wrestle like it.
Blaine scored points in all 14 weight classes, sent a tournament-best six Borderites to the finals and Johnson and Mikey Antczak (285 pounds) won individual titles to help earn 223.5 points and a tournament win Saturday, Jan. 12, at Sehome High School.
"It means so much," said Johnson of the win. "In my four years wrestling for Blaine High School, I've been second as a team in the conference three times, so to get it on the fourth time is amazing. I'm really proud of the guys. Everybody wrestled so hard. Freshmen in the finals, a sophomore in the finals; it was a team effort, and everybody worked their butts off."
Burlington-Edison placed second with 189 points, Ferndale took third with 166 points, Sedro-Woolley and Mount Baker shared fourth place with 142 points, Squalicum took sixth with 133, Anacortes was seventh with 88, Bellingham was eighth with 80, Lynden took ninth with 76, host Sehome was 10th with 72.5, Nooksack Valley took 11th with 44 and Meridian was 12th with 25.
Blaine coach Craig Foster was most excited about the way his Borderites won.
"The best part of that was that it was really a team effort," Foster said. "We had 14 different weights score points. That's what you need in a tournament like this. You need to get guys in the finals, which we did. I think every kid on the team can feel like they are a part of this. It feels good to win this tournament, because they can be few and far between."
Blaine 106-pounder Stuey Rasar, 113-pounder Billy Dodd, 145-pounder Christian Sharp, 152-pounder Justin Belding, Johnson and Antczak all reached the finals. Gage Lott, Anthony Frey, Caleb Frey, Eddie Fontes, Jon Stewart, Dwayne Ortega and Israel Hernandez placed top six.
The decisive win gives Blaine an added boost of confidence with the postseason looming.
"It's hard to tell when you compare this tournament to something else you might see down the road or at the state tournament," said Foster of what the wins says about Blaine's chances for a team state title. "But what's easy to see is that the kids compete hard, and it sounds silly, but sometimes it's hard to get a team to do that. Even in matches we lost, the kids were battling all the way."
Though six Borderites made the finals, only Johnson and Antczak won titles. They did so impressively.
Johnson made his way through the gauntlet that was the 220-pound weight class, earning a pin against Anacortes' James Swanson, a 15-4 decision against Lynden's Caleb Newman and a pin against Ferndale's Kam Williams in the finals. Foster said he believed the four 220-pound semifinalists - Mount Baker's Sterling Honeycutt, Williams, Newman and Johnson - will all be state placers.
Antczak earned four pins, including a pin of Squalicum's Patrick Schjelderup, on his way to winning his title.
"I got second last year, so it was nice to win it this year," Antczak said. "I'm just really glad we won. That means we'll have an easy practice on Monday."
Four other Whatcom County wrestlers won individual titles, and for Ferndale's Erik Engels (160 pounds), Bellingham's Patrick Anderson (138) and Lynden's Nick Iaconetti (126), this year played out much differently than last year. None of the three even placed a year ago.
Iaconetti beat Sehome's Steven Yazzie 9-5 in the quarterfinals, pinned Burlington-Edison's DJ Otis in the semis and beat Nooksack Valley's Taylor Gardner 15-0 in the finals. It was the first tournament he's won this season.
"I've been at a lot of tournaments this year and have taken third at every single one," Iaconetti said. "This one I had to battle my freaking heart out for every single win. I was dedicating my (finals) match to my friend Troy Postma who's been in the hospital for the past week, so I hope he feels good, too."
Engels continued his dominating season by pinning his way to a title Saturday. He beat Lynden's James Mitchell in the quarters, Sehome's Austin Vosburgh in the semis and Mount Baker's Travis Lindsey in the finals.
"It's a big win," Engels said. "It's my third championship this year, so it feels good to get one more before postseason. I've never placed in this tournament before. I have high hopes for this postseason."
Teammates Sam Alexander, Klinton Maassen and Williams reached the finals but lost.
Anderson meticulously dropped from his normal 152-weight class to 138 to see how he'd measure up for postseason. The answer was what the Red Raider senior was looking for.
He pinned Fontes in the quarterfinals, beat Squalicum's Zac Alter 9-0 in the semis and pinned Burlington-Edison's Tanner Zavala in the finals.
"I cut down to (1)38 from (1)52, so I knew there were a couple guys down here I could beat," Anderson said. "There were some rivals I wanted to wrestle, so it was a big deal to me, and I gave it all my heart."
Squalicum's Josh Pratt, like Engels, pinned his way to a title.
"It makes me feel great," Pratt said of being the top 106-pounder in the NWC. "I've proved myself that I'm worthy of wrestling with these guys."
Other Whatcom County wrestlers to make the tournament finals were Squalicum's Luke Jordan (120), Meridian's Jack Hallmark and Sehome's Zack Zimmerman (170).
Reach Andrew Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2862.
NORTHWEST CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT
AT SEHOME HIGH SCHOOL
BLAINE 223.5, BURLINGTON-EDISON 189, FERNDALE 166, SEDRO-WOOLLEY 142, MOUNT BAKER 142, SQUALICUM 133, ANACORTES 88, BELLINGHAM 80, LYNDEN 76, SEHOME 72.5, NOOKSACK VALLEY 44, MERIDIAN 25
106: Josh Pratt (Squalicum) pin Stuey Rasar (Blaine). 113: Hugo Diaz (Burlington-Edison) dec. Billy Dodd (Blaine) 5-3. 120: Adam Adkinson (Sedro-Woolley) pin Luke Jordan (Squalicum). 126: Nick Iaconetti (Lynden) dec. Taylor Gardner (Nooksack Valley) 15-0. 132: Nick Grandberg (Burlington-Edison) dec. Jack Hallmark (Meridian) 11-3. 138: Patrick Anderson (Bellingham) pin Tanner Zavala (Burlington-Edison). 145: Jacob Farrell (Sedro-Woolley) dec. Christian Sharp (Blaine) 6-2. 152: Kyle Morgan (Sedro-Woolley) dec. Justin Belding (Blaine) 16-8. 160: Erik Engels (Ferndale) pin Travis Lindsay (Mount Baker). 170: Rich Postera (Anacortes) pin Zack Zimmerman (Sehome). 182: Ross Atterberry (Anacortes) dec. Klinton Maassen (Ferndale) 7-2. 195: Jeff Bajema (Burlington-Edison) dec. Sam Alexander (Ferndale) 8-3. 220: Caleb Johnson (Blaine) pin Kam Williams (Ferndale). 285: Mikey Antczak (Blaine) pin Patrick Schjelderup (Squalicum).
Reach ANDREW LANG at email@example.com or call ext. 862.