Natalie Smith was preparing for the great unknown this time last year as a Mount Baker freshman wrestler about to compete in her first Mat Classic.
Smith, a 118-pound staple in Baker's lineup and one of two Mountaineers to win titles at last weekend's regional tournament, left her inaugural Tacoma Dome trip with an eighth-place medal. Not bad for a first-timer.
But she noticed something while receiving her award, an engraved image in her mind that's serving for extra motivation this time around.
"Last year I remember being at the bottom half of the podium," Smith recalled. "This year I'd like to be in the top half."
Smith will get her chance during Mat Classic XXVI on Friday-Saturday, Feb. 21-22.
If she were to accomplish the feat, she'd at least be able to match her brother Brian Smith, who Natalie said in seventh grade inspired her to become a wrestler.
Natalie said Brian's top finish was fourth place. His name placard still hangs in Baker's wrestling room on a wall of fame detailing every Mountaineers wrestler to earn a Mat Classic medal.
Everyone's but Natalie's, anyway.
"Actually my name tag didn't come in," Natalie joked, "but it should be up there."
Odds are, given her wrestling pedigree, she'll have at least three more chances to find a way on the wall.
And she's studied last year's state performance, when she went 2-3, to determine how she can crack the top four and hopefully wrestle for a state title as one of 10 Baker girls to qualify for the state's pinnacle meet.
Natalie has only lost four matches this season, and Baker coach Clyde Blockley pointed to the same reason for each of the defeats.
"She just goes," Blockley said. "She never stops. When she does stop, she gets in trouble. That's her four losses. She stopped wrestling those girls and that's why she has four losses."
Natalie is ranked No. 6 on washingtonwrestlingreport.com and has dominated most competition by employing a blend of sound technique and physicality.
Blockley said her aggressiveness is second to none and since Natalie witnessed herself slowing down during state last year, she's made a concerted effort to change.
Besides being one of the hardest workers in Baker's wrestling room - a room containing the most state wrestlers (10) of any girls' team in the state - Natalie attends volunteer 6:30 a.m. workout sessions to ensure she's in top form.
"The No. 1 thing that will help me that I notice is to always be moving," she said. "When I stop moving, that's when they score points on me."
Team points, especially, will be coveted during a year in which Mount Baker believes it has the chance to compete for a team state championship.
The Mountaineers finished second last winter with only eight Mat Classic wrestlers. Baker graduated some skilled seniors, but Blockley said he's witnessed a fresh determination and drive, one that started during summer camp when his team began forming a strong bond.
"We definitely would all love to be state champs as a team," Natalie said, "and we have a lot of girls going into it, so it's definitely a possibility."
A state title win would be Mount Baker's first since winning a championship in 2007 and second overall. Although the topic has been a point of discussion all year long, Blockley wants his girls to focus on their individual tasks of navigating through their respective brackets.
"Just need to come out and don't be nervous," said Blockley of what is team needs to do to be successful. "I said. 'Don't worry about the team title right now. Focus on yourself. If you focus on your job, the team title will come.' That's what I told them."
Natalie is certainly focused in hers.
Reach Andrew Lang at email@example.com or call 360-756-2826. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for Whatcom County sports updates.
MAT CLASSIC XXVI
When: Friday-Saturday, Feb. 21-22
Where: Tacoma Dome
GIRLS' STATE QUALIFIERS
Olivia Adams 130
Emily Gallegos 100
Gabriela Herrera 124
Thalia Veliz 170
MOUNT BAKER Wt.
Lacey Postelwait 100
Natalie Smith 118
Nicole Boardman 124
Heidi Chambers 124
Sylvia Lynch 130
Jessica Mata 137
Rachel Nichols 145
Aniecea Camacho 155
Jordan Horsman 170
Akemi Schwinden 235
NOOKSACK VALLEY Wt.
Alex Parson 112
Chloe Gardner 145
Kylee Dekoekkoek 155
Kaleiolani Jefferson 190
Lisa Hernandez 235
Reach ANDREW LANG at firstname.lastname@example.org or call ext. 862.