Nooksack Valley senior wrestler Taylor Gardner let out a yell and violently punched his open hand in celebration before sharing a meaningful embrace with Pioneers coach Chad Parson.
Gardner may not have won the quarterfinal match Friday, Feb, 20, that would have kept his state title dreams alive, but his raw emotion was warranted.
A four-time Mat Classic participant, Gardner, for myriad reasons, had never reached day two’s medal rounds. But not this time.
Facing a loser-go-home, winner-to-Saturday match, Gardner arguably wrestled the best match of his career, beating Sultan’s Tanner Belcher with a dominating 8-2 decision.
“It hasn’t set in yet but it’s crazy,” said Gardner, who guaranteed himself a state medal. “I have struggled all of this year, the whole season, and the last five weeks I said, ‘Coach, I’m dedicating myself 100 percent,’ I did it, and it paid off.”
Out of the nine Whatcom County Class 1A wrestlers, only Gardner and Mount Baker’s Jeremiah Cronk advanced with two wins during day one of Mat Classic XXVII on Friday at the Tacoma Dome.
Gardner faced a hard road Friday after taking the fourth seed at last week’s regional tournament. He lost to top-seeded Shawn Godinho of Castle Rock in the first round before bouncing back to beat Connell’s Branden Chavez with a 10-3 decision in the first consolation round, setting up a rematch with Belcher that Gardner lost at the regional tournament.
“I respect Tanner a crazy amount, but I was going for revenge,” Gardner said. “He pinned me at districts. ... If I lose, that is my last one, and if it’s going to be my last one it was going to be 100 percent, not going to leave anything in the tank.”
Gardner led 2-1 in the second period before earning a three-point near fall to push his advantage to 5-1 right before the end of the second. The 152-pounder picked up an early third-period escape to all but seal his fate.
“It’s my last year, so that was the best match I’ve ever wrestled,” Gardner said. “I’m going to bring that tomorrow.”
Cronk also will look to carry over a fine 2-1 record into the medal rounds.
Like Gardner, the Mount Baker 145-pounder needed to win back-to-back matches to advance after dropping his first.
Cronk pinned Deer Park’s Neil Lockwood in 46 seconds during the first consolation round, and he followed with a hard-fought 5-4 decision over Javier Contreras.
Cronk earned a third-period escape with 45 seconds left to take a late 5-4 lead. The Baker junior found himself in a precarious situation in the dwindling moments, but he dug deep to fend off Contreras’ takedown effort.
“He is a very mentally tough young man,” Mount Baker coach Roger Goodwin said of Cronk. “I mean really. He has a lot of grit. He is really fun to work with, because he puts in the work to be prepared and he practices for situations like that.”
The win was the first time Cronk had beaten Contreras after two prior defeats the past two years.
J.T. Keeney (195 pounds) and Jesus Torrero (120), Baker’s other two state wrestlers, bowed out of the tournament after going 1-2 and 0-2, respectively.
Nooksack Valley’s Tyson Mergel (285) went 1-2, and Brenan Blankers (106), Jared Parson (160) and Alvaro Jose (182) went two-and-out. Meridian’s Jake Cheney (106) exited after going 0-2.