The Mat Classic is Washington’s state wrestling tournament, and standing at the very top of the podium on a late Saturday evening in February at the Tacoma Dome can launch a high school wrestler into the spotlight.
Some of those wrestlers are able to go on to bigger and better things. They not only have the talent, but the drive and competitiveness to continue getting better at the next level.
And sometimes that same type of wrestler can be found on the edges of the podium.
It turns out that Dominick Johnson was one of them. The Central Kitsap heavyweight took fifth place in his senior year, and held the school record for pins at the time of his graduation, but was relatively unheralded coming out of high school compared to some of his peers.
But this past spring, he etched his name into National Collegiate Wrestling Association history, winning a national championship in the 285-pound weight class as a senior at Liberty University in Virginia.
Johnson defeated Chaasdyah St. Phard of Springfield Technical Community College in a close 2-1 match in the quarterfinals and then beat Jordan Karst of UNLV, who had beaten Johnson in a match just two months earlier, 5-4 in overtime in the semifinals.
Awaiting Johnson in the finals was Jesse Gaudin of the University of Central Florida. In four tries, Johnson was 0-4 against Gaudin, but he capped his career with an 8-4 victory and a national title. He, along with four other champions, also helped Liberty to the overall team championship.
“It was this surreal experience,” Johnson said, “because it was this thing that I worked for for so long and it was against guys that had beaten me by a pretty hefty margin the previous times I had wrestled them. So being able to overcome those things and carry through when it mattered most was an exceptional feeling.”
For even the best of wrestlers, tournaments can be full of tense, nervous moments where one small slip-up can lead to an upset. This tournament, held in Allen, Texas, was no exception for the heavyweight champion.
In the quarterfinals, it was St. Phard, a freshman who was off to a great start in his collegiate career, that gave Johnson an unexpected challenge. Johnson described his young opponent as a solid wrestler that knew how to defend well.
In past years, that’s about where Johnson’s run came to an end. As a sophomore, he finished fifth, but then fell one place to sixth as a junior.
“I was a little bummed out, not doing as well as I hoped,” Johnson said. “This year I had a chip on my shoulder, making up ground and do as well as I wanted to do.”
Johnson went all the way to a second overtime period against Karst — he nearly had the victory in the first overtime, but a takedown he thought he scored was called back. Karst scored an escape to go ahead, but Johnson ultimately managed a reversal and hung on to win.
“We went into this scramble for what felt like a long time while I was there,” Johnson said. “It was this really intense moment, he got in real deep and caught me off balance. I had to use literally ever weird scrambling wrestling move I knew rolling around and fighting for position.”
With the finals match between Gaudin and Johnson tied at 3, Gaudin eventually took a shot, hoping to score some points. But after losing to him four times, Johnson was ready and snapped him down to the mat to take a two-point lead. Gaudin escaped, and, desperate to get the score level, he tried the shot again and Johnson did the same thing, clinching the 8-4 win and a championship.
“Fortunately, after four years I managed to feel it out and figure out how to counter it,” Johnson said.
The win gave him a career mark of 97-36, not bad for a kid who never reached the state finals in high school and was merely hoping to continue with the sport in college when he arrived at Liberty.
He credits a large part of that to his coaching staff and wrestling partners. It can be tough in high school for a 6 foot 6 heavyweight to have a teammate anywhere near his weight class to properly practice for his opponents. But that all changed in college, as he had a number of good partners with which to drill.
“The coaching staff understands help you wrestle better rather than mould you,” Johnson said.
That may serve as an inspiration for later in life. Heavyweights coaches with experience can be hard to find at the lower levels of wrestling and Johnson said he definitely has an interest in coaching down the line.
But for now, he’d like to take a step back and a break after putting in so much time and effort into the sport over the course of his life.
“I think this is the end of my competitive career,” Johnson said. I’m going to pursue my graduate degree here at Liberty, so I’ll be in town a little bit longer. We’ll see how involved I stay with the program. I think I’m at the point where I just want a small break to see what life is like outside the wrestling room.”