When Ferndale seniors Kam Williams and Sam Alexander return to the Tacoma Dome for the Class 3A State Wrestling Tournament on Friday, Feb. 15, they will both have one thing on their minds.
Get on the podium.
Williams qualified for the tournament by finishing first at the Class 3A Regional Tournament in the 200 weight class, Alexander (182) qualified by taking second.
Last year both Alexander and Williams won their first match at the state tournament but then lost the next two and missed out on second day action. But both return as more experienced and smarter wrestlers.
They both have something else in common - overcoming serious injuries.
After starting on the varsity team as a freshman, Alexander tore his ACL during the football season and missed out on his entire sophomore year for the wrestling squad. Alexander said this only inspired him more.
"When I hurt myself and had to sit out that entire year on the sideline, it really showed me how much I love this sport," Alexander said in a phone interview. "It made me realize how important this sport is to my day-to-day life. I then focused solely on coming back to wrestle and that was what I focused my rehab on."
Alexander said he wanted to come back and as a junior make it to regionals. But he went farther than his goal and made it to state.
This season Williams got a concussion at the beginning of the year and missed a large part of the season.
"It was really frustrating not being able to wrestle," Williams said in a phone interview. "Seeing the other guys out there and not being able to do anything was hard."
Ferndale coach Caleb Schlack said that both Williams' and Alexander's injuries not only made them smarter as wrestlers, but also made them better leaders.
"They are the heart and soul of this team," Schlack said in a phone interview. "When Sam got beat at one point earlier this year, everyone was awestruck. I know that if they do well, the other guys will feed off of that and say, 'if (Williams and Alexander) can do it, so can we.''"
Schlack said this season he has really seen Alexander step up as a leader. Over the summer Alexander set up a camp for all the Ferndale wrestlers to attend together. He arranged all the plans and made sure everyone camped together. Schlack said that is just one example of how Alexander has stepped up this year as a leader on the Golden Eagle squad.
Schlack said by doing so, he became a natural leader for the rest of the guys to follow. Alexander said he thought it was something that he just needed to do.
"I knew I wanted to step into that leadership role and that I needed to lead by example," Alexander said. "I know that I can't be a hypocrite and not do what I am saying to the other guys. I always work hard in the workouts and I think the younger guys can see that."
Williams has also stepped into a leadership role this season, and much like Alexander, Williams leads by example.
Schlack said Williams has been really instrumental in helping the younger wrestlers this season and has put forth a lot of effort working with them.
Unfortunately for him, he was sidelined for much of the beginning of the year, but Schlack said he has stormed back and has really been able to respond to being injured.
"He knows that that's part of the sport," Schlack said. "He broke down a bit after the injury, but he really collected himself and kept working and focusing on his goals."
Schlack said Williams has really improved since coming in as an underweight heavyweight as a freshman.
Schlack said he lost a lot of matches as a freshman and was close to quitting.
"He came back as a sophomore and began to wrestle smart instead of trying to out-muscle everyone and found success and really worked hard," Schlack said. "Last year he came back and was dominating and was stronger after lifting all summer. He works so hard."
Schlack said for him to come back to where he is now this season after the injury shows how hard he has worked and how badly he wants to win this year.
Williams said the injury was the turning point in making him the leader he is today. He said there was a time he wanted to walk away but he thought about the people that looked up to him and he didn't want to disappoint them.
Williams recovered well, though, winning all but three matches this season.
He said a big part of his success was the support of his teammates and family. This time Williams said he is looking at state as just another tournament and that by having been there already he knows what to expect.
"It was scary in a way last year being there for the first time," Williams said. "But I am just going to stay calm and wrestle as hard as I can because I know that this will be the last time I wrestle. I want to show off all of the hard work I have put in over the last six years."
Alexander said his experience last year will only help him at this year's tournament, too.
"I'm going to go into every match like I always do," Alexander said when asked if he was nervous at all. "I tell myself I am going to wrestle for 6 good minutes. I never think I am going to pin someone in 20 seconds, I will just prepare myself like I normally do."