When Anthony Herrera first started working with Stansbury wrestling coach Tyson Linnell as an eighth-grader, he didn’t look like much of a wrestler at all to his coach, let alone one who would go on to become one of Utah’s best.
Four years — and countless hours of hard work — later, Herrera had his arms raised in triumph Saturday evening at the UCCU Center in Orem, having just defeated Mountain Crest’s Jace Dart 9-7 in the 138-pound state championship match in a moment the senior had always envisioned.
“It’s a dream come true,” Herrera said. “I’ve never wanted anything more since I’ve been in high school. Since freshman year, it’s all I’ve wanted.”
Saturday’s crowning achievement wasn’t something Linnell would have expected all those years ago.
“He was probably 5-foot tall and 130 pounds, and his dad still jokes about it — he said, ‘well, do with him what you can,’” Linnell said, laughing. “He came in as a freshman, lost weight, got clear down to 106 and ended up going down to 100 and making the national dual team. Just to think that the kid that I met in eighth grade … I never would have guessed it.
“It was awesome. He’s put in so much extra time. He’s just worked his tail off to get to this point, so just to see it all finally come down to being a champion is awesome.”
Herrera’s victory capped a season during which he won 47 matches and lost only three. Saturday’s championship match followed the same pattern as many of Herrera’s other wins, in which he may not have pinned his opponent, but his aggressive style enabled him to score takedown after takedown.
In fact, it was similar to the way in which he beat Dart just a few weeks earlier in the championship match at Tooele’s Best of the West tournament, a battle he won 9-6 to boost his confidence going into the divisional and state tournaments.
“I learned, ‘I can do it — this is my year, nobody can stop me. I’m No. 1 at my weight,’” Herrera said of what he gained from his first match against Dart.
Herrera becomes the second Stansbury wrestler in as many years to win a state title, joining Logan Gustafson, who was the Class 3A 145-pound champion in 2017. Prior to last year, Stansbury had never had a wrestler win a state title, but Linnell believes that having two names up on the wall in the SHS wrestling room will help to motivate future generations of Stallions.
“They’ve got guys to look up to having two state champs in the room,” Linnell said. “Those kids will know what to work for and what it takes to be a state champ. Now, they’ve seen it.”
Herrera, who is being recruited by Utah Valley University to continue his wrestling career, dominated the state tournament from start to finish. In the first round, he defeated Bear River junior Weston Hirschi by tech fall, beating him 17-2 at the 4:41 mark. His next match was a 6-1 decision over Payson junior Brock Loveless in the quarterfinal round.
After getting a chance to sleep on those two wins Friday night, Herrera came back Saturday morning and scored a 10-1 major decision over Hurricane senior Levi Webb in the semifinals, setting up the championship showdown with Dart — grandson of legendary former Tooele coach Paul Dart.
And when that was over?
“It was like all my hard work had just paid off in one single moment,” Herrera said. “I looked at my coach and he’d never been more proud of me in my life — I was just beyond happy. All the blood, sweat and tears … I worked hard all year doing freestyle, Greco, going to national tournaments, staying after practice day in and day out, running, gym, all that — it’s all paid off, and I’m grateful for every moment of it.”
While Herrera reached his ultimate goal of a state championship, the state tournament was a bit of a disappointment for Stansbury as a whole, as the Region 11 champions finished 12th in the team standings. Gustafson finished sixth at 145 pounds, losing to Salem Hills’ Chyler Zeeman in the quarterfinals before winning two consolation matches. Three other Stansbury wrestlers — 106-pounder Jake Otero, 152-pounder Dawson Stewart and 160-pounder Jacob Medsker — reached the third round of the consolation bracket before being eliminated.
“We had a lot of letdowns, and I think the competition got tougher moving up into the 4A classification,” Linnell said. “We’re young, and I know I graduate some of my studs, but we had over 30 freshmen on the team this year with lots of potential.”
Stansbury wrestler Danny Khoundet’s father, Addee, passed away early in the season, and senior heavyweight Josh Witkowski suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the year that kept him from competing at the state tournament. Dylian Moore, who likely would have finished high in the 113-pound bracket, was unable to make weight the first morning of the state tournament and was replaced by an alternate.
“It’s been a really rough year this year — probably the roughest year I’ve had in coaching ever,” Linnell said. “The guys have just come together and did what they could to get to where we’re at at this point.”
In other Class 4A action, Tooele senior Carter Grgich fought his way back from a tough loss in the quarterfinals to finish sixth at 170 pounds. He guaranteed himself a top-six placing by beating Ridgeline’s Garrett Roberts 2-0 in the third round of the consolation bracket.
“He’s been a leader on the team for a couple years,” Tooele coach Cody Valdez said. “Last year, he blew out his knee and didn’t get to finish out the season and he questioned his ability to wrestle this year at the beginning — he wasn’t sure how it was going to go. It makes the coaches very proud. We’re all emotional coaches when it comes down to it, and it was very tearful when he won that match, knowing that he was going to place. He’s worked hard and he definitely deserves it — it’s a great cap to a great four years.”
Grgich was the only Tooele wrestler to place in the tournament, with five Buffaloes taking part. Of those five, only 170-pounder Ryan Hintze, who made it into the field as an alternate and managed to win a consolation-bracket match, will return next season to a team that was very young and inexperienced this year. Still, Valdez is expecting better things from his squad in 2018-19.
“We do have a young team and we do have a lot of inexperienced wrestlers,” Valdez said. “That’s not an excuse. As coaches, we’re very disappointed where we’re at this year. We’re not where we, as coaches, want to be. We’re not where we, as a team, want to be.”
One team that will not have to do much in the way of rebuilding is Grantsville, which sent 14 wrestlers to the Class 3A tournament. Of those, a dozen were underclassmen, including state placers Koby Johnson (third at 160 pounds) and Thomas Coates (fifth at 113).
“It fires me up that I can be a state champ next year — that’s the big goal,” Johnson said. “I thought we had a pretty good year. We had a lot of new kids. (132-pounder) Nathen Carpenter beat a kid who had beaten him throughout the year and he had a good showing. Logan (Kuehn) had a good showing. Thomas showed up.”
Johnson was frustrated after suffering a 10-8 loss to Manti’s Lance Fowles in Saturday’s semifinal round, but found a way to take it out on his next two opponents. He pinned Union’s Parker Brinkerhoff 48 seconds into the second period of their consolation bracket semifinal, and scored a 15-0 tech fall win over American Leadership Academy’s Justyn Mitchell in the third-place match.
“I had to let the loss go,” Johnson said. “I had a tough semis match that I should have won, but stuff happens. Those last two kids — they got the fight.”
Coates also reached the semifinals, where he was pinned by Delta’s Jayden Petersen to drop into the consolation bracket semifinals. He lost by pin to South Summit’s Jayden Williams, putting him in the fifth-place match against Carbon’s Bryce Judd. Coates needed just 55 minutes to pin Judd.
Grantsville very nearly had a third state placer at 220 pounds, but Logan Kuehn lost a 14-9 overtime decision to South Sevier’s Kemmer Jones in the third round of the consolation bracket, one match short of the consolation semifinals.