Austin Vanderford dedicated nearly half a year to training, eagerly awaiting a chance at eclipsing consecutive sixth-place finishes at the state wrestling competition.
Well, that day has finally arrived.
Squaring off against Hutchison senior James Gillen in the 152-pound state finals, the junior from Ninilchik staved off a late charge by Gillen and held on for a 6-5 victory and his first title in three chances.
“It feels awesome,” Vanderford said by cell phone from the Wasilla Sports Complex. “I’m just relieved it’s over and that I won it.”
Seward’s Brandon O’Brikis (215) lost 5-4 to Barrow’s Michael Gonzales in the finals and William Clock (160) was pinned in 3:16 in his championship match by Michael Gumlickpuk of New Stuyahok. Complete medalist results will be available in Monday’s edition.
Coming up short in his two previous attempts at glory, Vanderford began his offseason training in March, hitting the gym every day for two hours and running up and down stairs.
In the end, he said it was all worth every second.
“I had to sacrifice so many things to better myself as a wrestler and to achieve something like this,” he said. “It was very worth it.”
Vanderford (31-1) pinned his way through his first three matches en route to his championship fight with Gillen, an opponent he had defeated twice earlier this season.
Jumping ahead 2-0 on an early takedown, Vanderford said he knew their third hookup this season would be more difficult.
“When we first scrambled around, I thought it would be a much tougher match than the times before,” he said. “But I never doubted myself.”
After earning an escape point for a 3-0 lead, Gillen put Vanderford in a leg ride which eventually led to a stalling point and a 3-1 match.
“For Austin to get a stalling call is pretty rare,” said his coach Kevin Zimmerman.
It didn’t faze him, though.
He scored a reversal in the third for a 5-1 advantage, but Gillen took him down for two points before he escaped again, making it 6-3.
With about 15 seconds left, Gillen added another takedown for a 6-5 final.
“I knew I was up 6-3, so I kind of gave him the last takedown so he couldn’t throw me and get back points,” Vanderford explained.
His coach never had any doubts, either.
“He’s a thinking wrestler. He’s pretty well-rounded,” Zimmerman said. “It doesn’t overwhelm him to be under the lights. He’s still the same wrestler.”
The flow was similar to that of their previous two matches. The intensity, however, was significantly higher.
“I think it was just a little bit tougher being state and being his senior year and his last match in high school,” Vanderford said. “So obviously, there was a lot of emotion out there.”
After placing sixth during his freshman and sophomore campaigns at 119 and 135 respectively, Vanderford may move up another weight to 160 next season.
“The way he’s growing from 119 to 135 and this year to 152 hopefully he’ll be around 160 or 171 next year,” Zimmerman said. “Barring any injuries and with the good, positive attitude he’s got, he’s got high hopes and will do nothing but improve, that’s for sure.”
For the time being, though, Vanderford is still trying to process what took place.
“It’s awesome,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s set in all the way yet. It probably will tonight when I’m lying in bed.”
Perhaps dreaming of what he’s been thinking about for years.
Matthew Carroll can be reached email@example.com.
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