By Mike Maltais
The Liberty Bell High School varsity wrestling team will travel seven strong to the Tacoma Dome this weekend to defend their state championship at Mat Classic XXVI, following a second straight regional title won at Kittitas last Friday and Saturday.
Seven Mountain Lions — Milo Holston, Meritt Fink, Trent Skelton, Emmett Fink, Jacob McMillan, Ivan Johnson and Danny Humiston — qualified for state by finishing among the top five in their weight brackets.
Holston, Skelton and Meritt Fink led the Mountain Lions with first-place medals at 160, 120 and 138 pounds respectively; Emmett Fink won second at 152 pounds; sophomore McMillan took third at 145 pounds and Johnson fourth; and Humiston tied for fifth place at 126 pounds.
Though they just missed the cut for state, Danny Rodriguez and Kaleb Marten placed sixth in their respective 113- and 132-pound brackets.
Speaking candidly, coach Paul Schmekel wasn’t sure his team would repeat as regional champs. Last year the Mountain Lions won the regional title by a single point but went on to dominate at state. This season, with fewer veterans on the roster, the Liberty Bell boys had to dig deep in the face of stiff competition. And it was those whose performances were less predictable — Humiston, Johnson, Rodriguez, and Marten — who came through with the critical six-point margin that gave the regional crown to Liberty Bell.
“This was our toughest match so far this season,” Schmekel said of a schedule notable for its incrementally challenging opponents.
“We had a few matches that came down to the last second of regulation and a few that were decided in overtime,” the coach said of his never-say-quit grapplers.
Following a first-round bye, senior Holston took an injury default win over Taylor Lewis of Pomeroy into the finals against Oroville’s Eddie Ocampo. Holston’s pin over his familiar Oroville rival in 2 minutes, 47 seconds gave him the 160-pound title.
State champion Skelton’s first-round bye led to a quick 15-second pin over Zack Erickson-King of Lake Roosevelt in the 120-pound bracket. Skelton’s title match against Logan Weber of Kittitas took a little longer, but the junior Mountain Lion finally prevailed with a pin in 5:52. Last year Skelton won the 106-pound state title.
After receiving a bye, Meritt Fink pinned Daniel Espinoza of Kittitas, and took a 5-1 decision over Republic’s Walker Baumback into the finals against Carlos Cruz of Pateros. State tournament veteran Fink defeated the Billygoat, 6-0, for the 138-pound championship.
Following a bye, junior Emmett Fink pinned Ramon Angel of Pateros in 1:19, and Nick Forbes of Kittitas, in 3:19. Fink, who placed second at state last year at 138 pounds, lost to Northwest Christian’s Ben Alford in the 152-pound final by a fall in 3:43.
McMillan scored a 2:29 fall over Zack Slater of Tri-Cities Prep and a 7-0 decision over Reardan’s Michael Sims before a 1:26 pin by Kodie Horn of Lake Roosevelt dropped the Mountain Lion sophomore into the consolation round. In that bracket McMillan beat Pomeroy’s Havin Heyvelt by a fast 29-second pin and pinned Luiz Gutierrez of Pateros for third place at 145 pounds.
Johnson, competing in the 152-pound bracket with Emmett Fink, lost his first match to Kevin Knauff of Garfield-Palouse by a pin. After a bye round in the consolation bracket, Johnson pinned Ritzville’s Hoang Vu and won a 16-0 technical fall over Drew Johnson of Wilber Creston. That win led to a match against Forbes, who lost an earlier contest to Emmett Fink. Johnson had lost to Forbes in earlier encounters this season, but handed the surprised Coyote an 8-6 loss this time around, one of the key wins in Liberty Bell’s march to the regional title.
“That was one of the day’s most entertaining matches,” said Schmekel.
Sophomore Johnson then met Knauff for a second time in a match for third and fourth place and lost by a pin to the Viking.
Humiston’s quest for fifth place at 126 pounds began with a 14-2 loss to Trapper Askins of Garfield-Palouse.
Relegated to the consolation bracket, Humiston scored a 12-2 decision over Northwest Christian’s Nick Higgins, followed by 5-2 win over Tommy Ott of Kittitas. After a 15-1 loss to Lake Roosevelt’s Coltin Williams, Humiston found himself in a rematch with Askins, who had defeated the Mountain Lion in their first regional meeting.
Then in what Schmekel described as the “most exciting match of the tournament” Humiston gutted out a 10-8 overtime decision over Askins for fifth place, another key win in the overall team title.
Though they fell just short of state qualification, the sixth-place finishes by sophomore Rodriguez, 113 pounds, and freshman Marten, 132 pounds counted “big time” in the Mountain Lions’ final team point standings, said Schmekel.
Rodriguez lost to Davenport’s Austin Stauffer, 10-3, to drop into the consolation bracket where he pinned Selkirk’s Calvin Rood in less than a minute. Losses to eventual third-place winner Jamie Mendez of Pateros and fifth-place Gerardo Rios-Lopez of Kittitas knocked the crestfallen Mountain Lion out of state, but he’ll accompany the team as an alternate.
“It’s amazing how well he has done in his first year on the team,” Schmekel said of Rodriguez.
Marten worked through six opponents en route to his sixth-place finish, beginning with a 39-second pin over Reardan’s Josh Meserve. A 15-0 loss to Mitch Barney of Colfax put Marten into the consolation round, where he scored a 4:10 pin over Leo Curiel of Oroville and a 6-4 decision over Pomeroy’s Clayton King.
A pin by Oscar Pakootas of Lake Roosevelt and a close 8-7 decision to Reardan’s Colton Kuykendall left Marten as a state alternate.
Senior Jake Pennock, in the 138-pound bracket with Meritt Fink, pinned Nathan Kieffer of Reardan but a second-round loss to Clark Rabe of Northwest Christian dropped Pennock into the consolation bracket. There, Pennock pinned Wilber-Creston’s Kendall Cunningham before losing to eventual third-place winner Ruger Lillengreen of Reardan.
Heavyweight Stoney Hulon lost his first match by a pin to Reardan’s Heiko Birkle and fell in a 10-5 decision to Jacob Klingensmith of Republic.
Liberty Bell took top honors at regionals despite having no wrestlers in five weight brackets — 106, 170, 182, 195 and 220 pounds. Sophomore Tyson Coleman, who wrestled at 170 pounds for Liberty Bell, sustained a season-ending shoulder injury in district competition.
The Mountain Lions will defend their state 1B/2B championship at Mat Classic XXVI starting this Friday (Feb. 21) at the Tacoma Dome.