Justin Belding's Mat Classic XXV will be bittersweet, no matter how it ends. It will be that way for coach Craig Foster, too.
Blaine's 145-pound senior began wrestling 10 years ago with fellow senior Caleb Johnson. Foster has been their coach ever since.
"Since second grade, I've been his coach all the way through," Foster said in a phone interview. "He's such a good kid, and he's always going to do the right thing. He's just a solid character guy - the kind of guy you want in your program."
That's 10 years of wins, losses, sweat, pounds lost and gained, bloody noses, laughter and plenty of excruciating hard work.
Belding and Foster have been through it all.
"It's almost hard for me to put into words," said Belding when asked about his relationship with Foster. "He is one of the biggest role models in my life. He means the world to me. He's more than just the coach-wrestler relationship, he is a fantastic guy and has helped me through a lot. I don't know what I'd do without him sometimes."
What Belding will try to do this weekend, with the help of Foster, is navigate deep into the medal rounds of the state tournament Friday, Feb. 15, and Saturday, Feb. 16, at the Tacoma Dome. Mat Classic XXV will serve as one last hurrah for the longtime wrestler-coach duo.
"It's probably going to be one of the most bittersweet things I've ever experienced, and it's been a great ride," Belding said. "We've had our ups and downs, and it's been fun."
Belding said he expects there to be emotions, but more smiles will be made than tears shed if he's able to rebound from last year's disappointing state tournament.
Two points stood between Belding and a medal a year ago. After losing to Selah's Kody Ergeson 5-4 in the first round, Belding earned a 15-0 decision against Woodland's Nathan Patterson. Needing another win to advance to Saturday's medal rounds, Belding lost 3-2 to Fife's Maverick Reddaway, who eventually placed third.
Belding's goal last year was to simply make state, but he felt a deep sting from being so close to earning a medal and coming up one point short.
"Last year was pretty disappointing, because I lost those close matches," Belding said. "It's especially hard when you're winning then you lose by one point or two. It's heartbreaking, but there's nothing you can really do but learn from your mistakes."
Learning happens to be an area where Belding is exceptionally skilled.
Besides owning a 3.914 GPA, Foster said Belding's ability to understand technique and fix mistakes is key to the Blaine senior's success.
"He's really good at the strategy part of it - what he's going to do when and is really going to benefit him at the same time," Foster said. "He's a really good listener. When I'm coaching kids, you can get the glazed over look, and you can tell they're not focused. He's always there mentally, which is huge. I think he has gotten way better at getting out of his own way mentally."
Belding said he's always prided himself on placing an emphasis on academics. Next year Belding plans to attend Eastern Washington University, where he wants to get his bachelor's degree in biology science theory with the hope to become a game warden.
The hard-working traits Belding displays in the classroom have made him a success in Blaine's wrestling room as a team co-captain and in dual meets and in tournaments.
"Over the past few years, (wrestling) has been one of the hardest things I've ever done," Belding said before backtracking. "It probably is the hardest thing I've ever done. Emotionally, physically, mentally: This sport drains you, but it is one of the most rewarding sports. You can't blame anything on anyone else. It's all you, and you have to give it your all. During the season, you're going through all the conditioning, and it's hard for you to enjoy it, but when you to this point of the season you get look back and are thankful and are excited for what's to come."
Belding is hoping a deep run in his 145-pound weight class and a spot high on the podium is in store for his final culminating wrestling tournament.
He placed second at sub regionals two weeks ago and placed third at regionals last weekend.
"I'm feeling good, actually," said Belding on heading into state. "I've made some mistakes, but I've built off those, and it's helped me in my bracket. I think I'm in a better spot and should be able to do pretty good."
Foster certainly believes in the wrestler he's been coaching this entire last decade.
"I think he can shoot for a high medal." Foster said. "I really believe that. I have high hopes, and I believe that he has the opportunity to do something special."
Blaine is sending 11 wrestlers to state and has an outside shot of claiming a team title. If the Borderites were to accomplish the feat, it would be a perfect way for Belding and Foster to conclude their long-standing wrestling relationship.
"That would mean everything to me," Belding said. "That is kind of everything we have worked towards all season long. This is by far my favorite team I have ever wrestled on. We've proved ourselves against numerous 3A and 4A schools, and we work hard every day at practice. We just need to go out and wrestle."
Reach Andrew Lang at email@example.com or call 360-756-2862.
WRESTLING STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS
When: 10 a.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 15-16
Site: Tacoma Dome
Reach ANDREW LANG at firstname.lastname@example.org or call ext. 862.