Puyallup High senior Josh Franich and Bonney Lake junior Brandon Kaylor had very different experiences Saturday at the Gut Check Challenge, but in the end, both walked away with championships.
This time last year, Franich (138 pounds) was putting himself on the state wrestling map with his performance as the then-junior defeated three former state champions before losing to Taishi Narikuni of the Japanese 18U team in the finals.
“It was a little easier this year getting to the finals,” Franich joked after his semifinal win.
Last year’s tournament launched Franich to a state title (132) as the points he surrendered to Narikuni in a 6-0 decision were the last he gave up to an opponent the rest of the season.
“Last year, that was rough,” Franich recalled.
Franich claimed a championship and a belt over the weekend when he defeated Jared Brant of Homer High of Alaska in the 138-pound final.
“At first I was kind of nervous because I didn’t know what I was going to do with this guy,” Franich said. “He’s a really long guy, so I had to figure out my strategy in the first round.”
The match started slow, with the taller and lengthier Brant showing a more of a size difference than the Vikings senior was accustomed to, forcing Franich to feel out his opponent.
The decision gave Brant a quick advantage as he hit Franich with a takedown for a quick 2-0 lead 30 seconds into the first round. After Franich reversed Brant, the first round ended 2-2.
“After the first round, I was like ‘I know what I’m doing,’” Franich said. “I was just going to wrestling him to the ground and stay on the ground. He had a better chance beating me on my feet.”
Sensing that he owned the strength advantage and better technique on the mat, Franich changed the game to a strength-vs-strength battle that Brant couldn’t handle.
Brant tried a takedown 45 seconds into the second round, but Franich just grabbed him and started to twist Brant into a takedown attempt. Brant tried to escape the circle, but Franich muscled him down and took a 4-2 lead heading into the final round.
Franich cleaned up from there, hitting a takedown 20 seconds into the final round to grab a 6-2 lead, and just sat on Brant, not allowing him to escape or attempt a comeback.
“He was hard to take down, and I’m surprised to get that final takedown,” Franich said. “It feels awesome winning. I won that belt.”
Curtis freshmen Maka Yacapin and Ryan Wheeler nearly took Gut Check by storm, with Wheeler having the more impressive tournament.
After Yacapin (106) opened the finals with a 32-second pin over Kyler Romero of Toppenish, Wheeler (113) nearly followed suit a match later at the expense of Bonney Lake’s Brandon Kaylor.
Kaylor, a two-time state champion and All-American, is arguable the state’s top wrestler, and for much of his 113-pound final with Wheeler, Kaylor proved just that by jumping out to a 7-1 lead over the Curtis upstart by the end of the second round.
“Ryan is a tough incoming freshman. It doesn’t matter how tough you are or how many titles you’ve won, you have to wrestle everyone the same,” Kaylor said. “You have to give it your all, and you can’t quit out there. It doesn’t matter who you are. I almost learned that the hard way.”
The only point Kaylor surrendered came in the second round when the Panther junior decided to let Wheeler up instead of expending energy before the final round. For 52 seconds, Kaylor fought off Wheeler, and after seeing he had a sizable lead on the Curtis freshman, Kaylor let up — a move that nearly cost the All-American the match.
Wheeler hit a shot before Kaylor found a way to wiggle out of the takedown to put himself back up 8-3 with 30 seconds remaining.
Instead of playing defense, Kaylor aggressively attacked Wheeler with a shot at the edge of the mat with 10 seconds remaining, but as soon as Kaylor connected, Wheeler reversed the Panther standout and came away with a near fall, cutting the deficit to 8-7.
“I stopped wrestling for the last 30 seconds, and I tried to get that last takedown to end on a good note,” Kaylor said. “I started to wrestle not to win, but not to lose. I got to wrestle the full six minutes — you can’t go five and a half minutes. That’s a big difference.”
Kaylor was fortunate that time expired, and that his shot put him and Wheeler out of any clear view of the referees. Wheeler had the pin with a fraction of a second left, but Kaylor muscled one final arch to his back to get his left shoulder off the mat at the buzzer.
Bonney Lake’s David Woo reached the 120-pound finals, but he lost to Devin Gentz of South Kitsap on a 11-3 major decision.