Nooksack Valley’s Taylor Gardner became the only current senior from Whatcom County to qualify all four years for Class 1A state wrestling, but he had to overcome the most excruciating pain he had ever endured on the mat.
After medics cleared him to compete in the match he had to win to reach state, the 152-pound athlete pinned Bellevue Christian senior Tyler Aguirre in 3:37 in one of the most meaningful matches for a local athlete at the 1A Regional Tournament before a large crowd at Meridian on Saturday, Feb. 14.
That gave Gardner no worse than fourth place, so he and his coaches felt it was wise to default the match for third place, since the top four qualified for the Mat Classic on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 20-21, in Tacoma.
“I went into the match (he had to win) not doubting myself,” said Gardner, who won his opening match 15-7 but later hobbled off to be treated with obviously severe pain in his left leg after being pinned by eventual champion Eli Everson of Klahowya in the second round. “I figured it was only going to hurt for six minutes at most.”
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Gardner, who listed his record as 17-5, missed part of the season with a shoulder problem. When he qualified for state, the gritty senior earned the cheers and respect of his teammates and coaches and not a few other fans, as well.
“I’m just going to let it heal, then work as much as I can this week. At state, I plan to wrestle my way, aggressive and focused,” said Gardner, who is seeking his first state medal.
Although Whatcom County had no regional champions, eight other locals will join Gardner at state.
Mount Baker junior JT Keeney came the closest to a title, losing 7-6 in the last three seconds of the 195-pound final on a sudden throw by Sultan senior Brandon Webb. Junior teammate Jeremiah Cronk claimed the only other local second place, suffering a pin at 145 pounds by Klahowya sophomore Gabe Wallis in 2:26.
Thirds went to Meridian freshman Jake Cheney (106), Mount Baker sophomore Jesus Torrero (120) and Nooksack sophomore Tyson Mergel (285).
In addition to Gardner, fourth and final qualifying spots went to three other Nooksack wrestlers — freshman Brenan Blankers (106), junior Jared Parson (160) and senior Alvaro Jose (182).
Fifth place and state alternate status went to Meridian freshman Martin Pfannenstiel (106), along with three Nooksack wrestlers, freshman Uriel Lopez (113), sophomore Valentin Villalobos (120) and junior Alex McLaurin (145), and three Mount Baker competitors, sophomore Braxton Shannon (195), freshman Ethan Valum (220) and sophomore Kole Hickey (285).
Sultan, a state title hopeful, proved overwhelming with 291 points, followed by Vashon Island with 229.5 and Klahoya with 186. Nooksack was fifth in the 11-school regional at 89, with Mount Baker sixth at 74 and Meridian ninth at 27.
Baker’s Keeney earned a return ticket to state and seemed determined not to let the last-second loss bother him. He won his first encounter with Sultan star Webb with a throw in the first 18 seconds of their initial match this season. But Keeney lost 17-8 in the sub-regional to Webb, so Keeney’s regional showing was a marked improvement.
“My goal is to become a well-balanced wrestler,” said Keeney, a co-captain who has become known for his devotion to learning the finer points of the sport. “That (Webb’s match-winning) throw today came out of nowhere. (In somewhat similar fashion) I lost by one point in the last second of my final match last year at state.
“What I’d really like to say is to express thanks to how much my coaches and teammates are helping me to improve,” Keeney said.
Likewise, Meridian freshman Cheney expressed special gratitude to Meridian freshman Julie De La Cruz Aguilar, the Trojans’ only season-long female wrestler, for her consistent help. Cheney pinned Blankers in the first round of the third-place match.
“Julie trains 100 percent (effort) all the time and she really helped me. I’m so glad she made it to (girls’) state. My goal was to make it to regionals,” said Cheney, expressing thanks for those who helped him exceed that goal with a state berth. Cheney had pins in the first, third and final rounds but was pinned in the second round.
Likewise, Mount Baker sophomore Torrero said he was “a little surprised” to get to state after qualifying for regionals last year.
“What really helped me was the leadership of our older wrestlers,” said Torrero, who earlier in the regional scored a pair of pins and won 17-5 over Vashon’s Rodolfo Flores in the third-place match. “I always try to work as hard as they do. Our older guys inspire me. I’m hoping to be a captain when I’m a senior.”
Nooksack senior Jose had never played a high school sport until taking up wrestling this season.
“I didn’t think I would get this far (to state),” said Jose. “This feels great. I’ll be giving it my best shot.”
Teammate Gardner, the only other local senior in the regional, said Jose’s work ethic amazes him.
“Alvaro is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever seen,” Gardner said. “I’m so happy he made it to state.”
Class 1A Boys’ Regional
Team scores: Sultan 291, 2. Vashon 229.5, 3. Klahowya 186, 4. Bellevue Christian 110, 5. Nooksack 89, 6. Mount Baker 74, 7. Cascade Christian 73, 8. Port Townsend 43, 9. Meridian 27, 10. South Whidbey 26, 11. Seattle Academy 0.
Championship matches: 106: David Woo (Sultan) dec. Luke Larson (Vashon) 9-7 OT; 113: Chase Wickman (Vashon) p. Caden Haga (Klahowya) 2:50; 120: Shane Williams Jr. (Vashon) p. Shae Shoop (PT) 1:44; 126: James McKenzie (Sultan) p. Hunter Burger (Vashon) 1:21; 132: Jamell Carroll (Sultan) p. Hunter Newman (SW) 2:51; 138: Bryce Hoisington (Vashon) p. Andrew Jennings (CC) 3:39; 145: Gaeb Wallis (Klahowya) p. Jeremiah Cronk (MB) 2:26; 152: Eli Everson (Klahoya) p. Tanner Belcher (Sultan) 3:09; 160: Logan Nelson (Vashon) p. Dylan Oster (Sultan) 2:26; 170: Konner Langholff (Klahowya) p. Alex Irizarry (BC) 2:21; 182: Te’Ave Metzger Magale (CC) dec. Matt Baller (Sultan) 5-2; 195: Brandon Webb (Sultan) dec. JT Keeney (MB) 7-6; 220: Damon Davis (CC) dec. Morgan Yates (Sultan) 7-1; 285: Daniel Young (BC) p. Josef Coller (Vashon) 2:17.