Blaine coach Craig Foster has sat mat-side during Caleb Johnson's countless wrestling bouts during their 11 years together.
Foster has watched Johnson grow up on the mat ever since their coach-wrestler relationship began when Johnson was in the second grade. The longtime Borderites coach has seen Johnson at his best, his worst and everywhere in between.
Through it all, the two have learned plenty about each other. And just when Foster may have thought he had Johnson completely figured out, the 195-pound wrestler gave his coach one more reason to be proud of him.
A crushing defeat during Mat Classic XXV's semifinals left a distraught coach with a disheartened wrestler. Johnson had eyed winning a state title since his junior year ended with him earning a fifth-place medal, but a tough 8-7 loss to Granger's Abidan Duarte left Johnson with shattered dreams.
"It is one of those matches that I think about every night," said Johnson of his one-point loss. "You wish you could go back and change a couple things."
What happened next not only showed Foster how much Johnson has grown since last year, it also taught a young Borderite team an important lesson: Never stop battling.
Johnson lost his first match following a semifinal loss at Mat Classic XXIV and finished in fifth place. He didn't dwell on his semifinal loss this time. He didn't sulk. He wrestled hard and finished with a career-best third-place medal by pinning his final two opponents.
Foster said Johnson was upset after he lost his state semifinal match, but he was impressed with the maturity he showed in fighting back.
"A lot of times an entire career can come down to a six-minute match or a 30-second flurry where it is all on the line," Foster said. "When you're a senior and you lose a heartbreaker, I didn't know how he would respond. He was thinking about the team and wanted to place as high as he could. He ended up getting over his own sense of loss and came back to score team points. That showed a lot. Some guys throw in the towel."
Not Johnson. Not this time. He battled to the very end.
Johnson's 33-3 record with 20 pins, third-place state medal and strong tournament performances has earned the senior distinction as The Bellingham Herald's All-Whatcom County Wrestler of the Year. Foster, who guided a Whatcom County-best 11 wrestlers to state, and coached Blaine to an eighth-place state finish, a Northwest Conference Tournament title and a share of the NWC dual-meet title, has been selected Coach of the Year.
Johnson's medal haul included tournament titles at the Battle at the Border, Panther Classic, Northwest Conference Tournament, and the Class 1A Sub Regional and Regional. He also took third out of 64 wrestlers at the prestigious Tri-State Tournament.
"Coming into the year, we had really high expectations," Foster said. "He had a great season, and I think he really should be proud of himself."
Johnson polished his technique and became what Foster calls a more "solid" or technically-sound wrestler.
The Blaine senior also learned how to win close matches and limit opponent's points. What really catapulted Johnson to another level, though, was his unique blend of strength, speed and athleticism.
Few 220-pounders contained Johnson's muscular frame. If they did, they didn't have his speed and quickness.
Johnson's weight fluctuated between 200 and 205 pounds most of the year. He began wrestling in the 220-pound class. The extra room prevented him from micro managing his weight, which Johnson said "allowed me to eat whatever I wanted and bulked me up."
Johnson decided to wrestle at 195 pounds in the postseason. He made the decision after conferring with Foster.
"He told me he thought I could win at both 220 and 195," Johnson said," but it was a little more open at 195. He told me not to feel like I was running from anybody."
The weight drop nearly worked. Johnson won sub regional and regional titles before losing his state semifinal match.
Not only was Johnson integral in propelling Blaine to its best state finish since the Borderites took third in 2009, he gave the young Borderite wrestlers a strong role model to imitate.
"He was good, because he has kind of been there and done that," Foster said. "He had a lot of confidence other people could feed off, and other guys could look up to that and kind of emulate."
When Mat Classic XXV ended, Johnson said his wrestling career was over, but he recently took a trip to NAIA school Montana State Northern and may wrestle collegiately.
Reach Andrew Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2862.
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