November 24, 2008 · Updated 5:11 PM
Wrestling wins third title in five years
By Matt Phelps
Mercer Island Reporter
It has been a long three years since the Mercer Island wrestling program dominated 3A KingCo for back-to-back league titles. The wait is over. For the third time in five seasons, the Islanders earned the KingCo title in wrestling with their 54-24 victory over Newport.
“I think this is the best one,” said senior Alex Faith, who was an invaluable freshman wrestler during the last championship season. “We suffered a little hurdle this time, but I am proud of everyone on this team for never giving up.”
Senior leadership was a big part of the comeback, said Mercer Island coach Creighton Laughary.
“We are fortunate to have as much depth as we do,” said Laughary. “There were some guys who were hurting, and I didn’t want to risk them with the post season so close.”
That gamble paid off for Mercer Island but also made for a tense start to the evening. A forfeit at 112 pounds coupled with two pins and a loss on points by young Islanders backed the team into a corner. Faith gave Mercer Island its only mat victory through the first seven matches of the evening. The pin came in the form of a cradle move after just 42 seconds had elapsed. Faith’s victory and a forfeit at 135 pounds left Mercer Island down 24-12.
But momentum has been a big factor at Mercer Island meets this year, and Austin Frazier’s pin during the third round of the 152-pound match gave the Islander bench something to cheer about. With a big 10-0 lead, Frazier wasn’t happy just hanging on for the easy win on points. Grasping his opponent’s legs, the Knight wrestler tried to bridge out of the hold with his head and neck. But Frazier found an opening by swinging his leg over the wrestler’s sternum and forcing his body weight into the Newport student’s chest. With 27 seconds left in the match, the referee slapped the mat for the pin.
The desire to get as many points as possible for the team continued into the 160-pound match as freshman Colton Knebel took the mat for the Islanders with a chance to tie the score. The match was the most aggressive of the night. Knebel found himself in trouble with time expiring in the second round, as his opponent rolled him up into a ball. But the momentum of the move allowed Knebel to keep the roll going and put his opponent’s shoulders on the rubber mat with just nine seconds remaining.
“Wrestling isn’t always about strength or technique,” said Knebel, who finishes the season 8-0 in league matches. “I was a little worried, but I didn’t let it get to my head. A little always helps.”
Islanders Sam Bliss (171 pounds, 3:24) and Graham Horgdal (189 pounds, 3:36) both continued the momentum, building double-digit leads in points scored but eventually earning pin falls during the second round for the team.
“We have worked harder than ever this year, and the coaches have been really tough on us,” said Bliss. “But it has been worth it.”
Following a forfeit at 215 pounds, the Islanders held an 18-point lead with three matches left. But it was fitting that a win by senior Tanner Linton in the heavy weight division could clinch the title. An injury forced Linton out of the only meet that the Islanders lost during the season. The fact that he could not compete in that meet has eaten away at the senior during the second half of the season.
“I felt so bad being out, and we had such high hopes this year,” said Linton. “But for as bad as I felt earlier this year, I have a great fire going and I am better than ever.”
Linton’s match lasted less than a minute, as he earned the KingCo-clinching pin fall.
Islander Kyle Shanafelt, who has also battled injuries this season, earned a pin fall at 103 pounds to round out the Islander scoring.
While Islanders like Shanafelt and Knebel are the future of the Islander program, the seniors know how far they and their coach have come.
“He has shown that he has trust in us,” said Faith. “Everyone needs a coach who believes in them, and he put it in our hands.”
Laughary said that there was inevitable pressure when he took over for Paul Jackson, who coached the team for 27 years. But Laughary, in his third year at the helm, just won the fourth league title in school history.
“This is a fabulous accomplishment by the kids,” said Laughary. “And we have a great middle school program, so this is a team effort.”
The Islanders now look to the postseason and the KingCo tournament starting Friday at Liberty High School.