By AARON MANAGHAN
TACOMA — In what’s been a somewhat tumultuous year for the Olympic Trojans wrestling program, balancing several strong performances with a slew of off-mat obstacles, sophomore Branden Yeik saved the day, and maybe the season, in the biggest way possible.
Yeik did what few outside the Kitsap peninsula believed he could do Saturday at the 3A WIAA Mat Classic State Wrestling Championships, first knocking off the bracket favorite before outlasting Ferndale’s JJ Reiser to claim the 130-pound crown.
“With the trials the team’s been through, with injuries and off-the-mat situations, to end with a big win by Branden is going out on a high note,” Oly coach Tim Aiken said.
The victory fueled Oly’s 11th-place finish at the tournament, scoring 56 points to trail No. 10 Auburn-Riverside by 11. Enumclaw won the tournament with 124.5 points to edge out Yelm’s 119.5. Locally, Bremerton finished 36th with 11 points while Bainbridge was tied for 45th with six points.
After the 9-4 win, Yeik enthusiastically extended his forefinger upright, then hoisted sister Camie, herself the sixth-place finisher at 103, into the air in a celebratory bear hug.
“I wanted it badly,” he said. “It’s all I thought about for a week.”
As Olympic’s corner of the Tacoma Dome erupted in cheers, Branden Yeik continued to find himself the center of attention, with numerous members of his family, friends and the Washington wrestling community passing on congratulations.
But the path to the title was anything but easy.
After pinning Nolan Richards of Skyline in 1 minute, 1 second, Branden outlasted White River’s Jeremy Gurule in a 12-10 victory. That set up a semifinal match that to Branden may as well have been the final: a match-up with Sedro-Woolley junior Shane Hunt, twice a third-place finisher (at 119 last year and 103 in 2006).
“The semifinal literally was my finals match,” Branden said of the battle with Hunt, who he estimated has beaten him in five previous meetings outside the high school ranks. “I’ve never beaten Shane Hunt. He’s always beaten me.”
But after a scrappy 10-8 win, Branden proved doubters wrong in getting to the top in his first year of high school eligibility with an impressive 9-4 finals win against Reiser, whose three prior losses this season all came at the hand of Hunt.
“It feels great,” he said. “There’s no doubt in people’s minds now.”
Camie, who claimed her second state placment in a boys tournament, was elated for her little brother following the victory over Hunt.
“That match was huge,” she said. “He worked through it step by step. I was almost crying at the end of the match. I was crying.”
With Camie placing sixth, the duo entered the state wrestling record books as the first brother-sister duo to place in the same tournament. For Camie, it was one of several, as she also tied state records for placing twice in a boys tournament and placing sixth, equaling Puyallup’s Whitney Conder. With the interest in girls wrestling rising across the state, the WIAA in 2007 created a girls state tournament. Camie will also go down as the last girl to wrestle in a boys state tournament, having been grandfathered in as a participant in 2006.
For Camie, it has nothing to do with proving anything on the mats. Rather, she said she focuses solely on her performance and her opponent each time out.
“I thought I wrestled a really good tournament,” she said. “I’m not upset with the way I wrestled. I didn’t give up.”
In a tough 103 bracket, Camie opened with a solid 3-2 win against Enumclaw’s Marcus Nichols before Keith Babington of East Valley (Spokane) won 12-5. She would become quite familiar with Babington, as he beat Camie 7-0 in the fifth/sixth-place match.
“It was pretty tough,” she said. “Our region was tough. I’m proud to be a part of that.”
Sophomore Jesse Borcherding made a splash in his state debut as well, finishing third in what many considered the toughest bracket across classifications in the state this year: 112 pounds. Borcherding lost a close 3-0 decision to Southridge’s Ely Garza to finish in fourth place.
“We’re not disappointed in how Jesse finished at all,” Oly assistant Erick Kendl said. “As a sophomore, it’s big being where he is right now. He’s gonna do big things for us.”
Borcherding’s first state test was passed with a nice 7-2 win over eventual eighth-place finisher Nathan Brown of North Central. That set up a battle with Justin Purves of White River, one of several making up the toughest weight in the state.
In the top half of the bracket, Bremerton’s Billy Richardson won both his opening matches before falling narrowly 6-5 to eventual champ Isaac Romero of Sunnyside. So after Purves topped Borcherding 4-0 in a tight match and Borcherding rebounding with a 7-5 win against Yelm’s Patrick Benson, who took seventh, a fourth match between Richardson and Borcherding took place, with Borcherding evening the season series 2-2 with a 7-3 win. Richardson would finish sixth.
“Before he stepped on the mat with Billy, I told him, ‘This is the one that counts,’” Aiken said.
With the two having wrestled so much this season, Aiken said both had to stay sharp.
“The competition is really high,” he said. “It was just whoever was on their game for that match was gonna be the winner.”
At 160, Trojan senior Ivan Gaeta made it all the way to the semifinals before finishing in fifth place, ending his Olympic career with a 9-6 win against Everett’s Taylor Boyce.
After winning his first two matches to lock up a placement on day one, Gaeta fell to eventual state champ Joey Pierotti (Enumclaw) 12-0. He then lost against Pierotti’s Enumclaw teammate, Dillan Claire, 7-2. After those tough losses, Gaeta said he was happy to go out with a victory.
“It meant a lot,” he said. “I didn’t want to go out and be sour about my last high school experience.”
Bouncing back after tough losses hasn’t been the easiest for Gaeta this year.
“It was great,” Kendl said. “Ivan is one of those kids who comes in and works hard. One of the things Ivan had trouble with was recovering from that loss. That was big.”
He attributed his turnaround to the support of family and the Oly staff.
“My coaches and my parents, they said, ‘You want to end the year with a win,’” he said. “It was just their love and support.”
With his high school wrestling career officially ended, Gaeta said he’ll now turn his attention to adding weight instead of cutting it.
“It was awesome,” he said of his time as a high school wrestler. “What can I say? I get to eat now though. Spaghetti Factory is next!”
While there were several Trojan successes at the Tacoma Dome, more injuries took a toll before the team even arrived. Oly senior Brandon Truini, who had qualified at 119, was forced to pass on the tournament when injuries stemming from a severe tailbone bruise proved too painful.
“His whole lower back was stil bothering him,” Aiken said. “He couldn’t make it through practice without it hurting him. But he had some good tourneys where he won. He wrestled some of those kids we see here today.”
Olympic senior Billy Neary had perhaps the toughest day for the Trojans, going two-and-out. And while it wasn’t the finish Neary and the team were hoping for, Kendl said contributions like his and the rest of the Oly seniors won’t be forgotten.
“We’re definitely gonna miss seniors like Camie, Laurice,” he said. “David Reynolds was strong for us this year. Lucas Kogut, Billy. All those guys. And Ivan. We’re gonna miss all those guys a lot.”
Olympic junior Shane Galeski made his state debut, also getting bounced from the tournament after two losses. But Kendl said the experience he gained far outweighs any loss on the mats.
“More than anything, it’s overall confidence,” he said.
As for Branden and the rest of the returning Trojans, the focus remains on getting better.
“It’s easier to be first than to stay first,” he said. “It feels great to be on top. But I’m gonna have to train harder than I have before.”
Both Aiken and Branden feel he’s got a shot at not only repeating, but three-peating his state title. Aws Aiken pointed out, it won’t come easy.
“He took that first step,” Aiken said. “But he’s still gonna have to work. No one is going to give it to him.”
But after all, for Branden, that’s been the goal he’s been working toward all along.
“It feels great,” he said. “I’m a third of the way there.”