Hanford Champion
Year: 2010
Team: Wrestling
Name: Caleb Gifford
It's a short distance from being on top of the world to feeling down in the dumps.

Hanford's Caleb Gifford gave up a couple of early takedowns and seemed to be in trouble in his 135-pound championship match Saturday night at the Tacoma Dome.

A handful of seconds later, his arm was raised high, his 3A state crown secured.

Kamiakin's Pedro Mendoza got off to a great start in his 4A title match at 145 pounds, getting one takedown with a beloved ankle pick and then scoring again to open some breathing room.

Moments later, he was battling from the bottom, and a few minutes after that he was battling the tears.

Mat Classic: If it didn't hurt so much to lose, it wouldn't feel so good to win.

"I'm just trying to get it (to register) in my head -- all the hard work paid off," Gifford said after pinning East Valley's Sean Biltoft in 3 minutes, 4 seconds to become Hanford's first state champion since Cody Bradshaw (189) in 2006 and just the second since Michael Schwegel (275) in 1999.

Mendoza had similar hopes of winning Kamiakin's first title since Tyler Sherfey won his second state crown in 2004.

But after getting out to a 4-1 first-period lead against Kyle McIntosh of Thomas Jefferson, Mendoza scored only a trio of escapes in the second and third periods and had to settle for a 10-7 loss.

"He did a good job out there," Kamiakin coach Ryan McCallum said of his senior. "He kept attacking, and that's what we talked about all week. He left it on the mat."

Gifford left his opponent on the mat, stunned.

After getting the two early takedowns, Biltoft chose to start the second period from the down position.

Big mistake against Gifford, who wasted little time getting control of Biltoft's legs and then closing the deal.

"I beat him to the shoulder, got the half nelson, and he was going to be on his back," Gifford said. "When I'm on top, I feel like I'm strong, like I can do whatever I want on top. It's felt like that this whole week."

Tri-City schools placed three more wrestlers in the 4A and 3A ranks.

Southridge senior Ely Garza ran through the gamut of emotions after his final match, a 7-5 win over University's Brandon Byers to secure third place at 4A 119. "I'm glad, it's sad, I'm happy, I'm disappointed," he said after placing at state for the fourth time, yet coming up short of his championship goals.

Garza, who beat Byers 9-4 in the regional final, had a tougher go of it this time, leading 4-1 and 6-2 before holding on -- quite literally at the end -- for the two-point win.

Garza is the school's second four-time state placer, following four-time finalist Eric Schwartz (1997-2000).

"Yeah," he said, "but I would have liked to have won a state championship, though."

While Garza's Mat Classic days are over, Hanford's Matt Owens likely has his best times ahead.

The junior, making his first trip to state, placed fourth at 145 pounds in the 3A tournament. Owens lost his final match 8-5 to Derek Vanwyhe of Glacier Peak, but that came after four straight wins to bounce back from being pinned in his opener Friday afternoon.

"That first match I was pretty nervous, and starting that second match I wondered if I belonged here," Owens said. "But after that second match, I realized I belonged.

"I never thought I would be mad to get fourth place, but now I think I could have been in the championship."

Another junior, Richland's Dustin Utecht, finished fifth at 4A 130, beating Mead's Tyler McLean in the placing match. It's Utecht's first state medal after competing here the last two years.

Walla Walla's Eric Eastman capped a tournament full of close matches (five of six were decided by two points or less) with a 6-4 win over Stanwood's Brad Gee to place fifth at 189.

All-Area Wrestling: Hanford Senior Lands Top Honor

They were bold words spoken by Caleb Gifford back in December.

"Coming into the season," the Hanford senior said as the wrestling season was getting under way, "I was expecting to be a state champion this year."

It wasn't easy backing up that statement, and it certainly wasn't an easy road through the postseason for Gifford -- though at times he made it look so. But in the end, he lived up to those expectations, winning the 135-pound title in the 3A state bracket at Mat Classic XXII.

"That was something," Hanford coach Dominic Duncan said. "Caleb made no bones about it. He was there to win a state championship."

And now he can add the title of the Herald's All-Area Wrestler of the Year.

"It was what I dreamed of," Gifford said of winning a state title, "and (the dream has) been with me quite a few years."

He heads a list of All-Area wrestlers that includes a pair of two-time champions and one three-timer. Warden's Rick Bowers was selected Coach of the Year, having led the Cougars to third place in the 1A standings and being inducted into the Washington State Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame last fall.

Gifford was one of 16 area wrestlers to win a state title this season and had a 31-8 record -- a bit pedestrian by championship standards. But he wound up beating the wrestlers who placed second through fifth in his weight during the postseason. His regional title came against wrestlers who would go on to finish second and third at state.

"Wrestling those guys really made a difference come state time," he said. "Looking back at it, state was a little easier than I thought."

Though not without some drama.

After advancing to the finals with a 44-second pin, an easy 6-2 win over the fourth-place finisher and a third-period pin against the fifth-place wrestler, Gifford ran into East Valley's Sean Biltoft.

Biltoft -- who beat Gifford 11-7 in the district final -- got two first-period takedowns and led 4-2 to start the second. And that's when Biltoft made his one and only mistake of the match -- choosing to start the period down, and giving Gifford the top.

"(Caleb) has always been a very tough rider," Duncan said. "He's always been able to control guys when he's on top."

"I was really happy he chose down," Gifford said. "I felt that I could really beat down guys (from) on top. I put some pain on them and wear them out, and then in the third round make it happen."

It didn't take that long.

Gifford slipped a half-nelson around Biltoft and got him turned, ending the match midway through the period.

"Coming up with that pin, it was kind of a crazy moment," he said. "I didn't know what to feel."

Whatever it was, it felt a lot better than the sudden case of nerves that took over before the match.

"I just went blank," he said. "Just being down there with so much going through my head.

"I always watched the finals from up in the stands. This year being down matside was a whole different experience. You're really nervous --all those eyes look. No, I don't think I've ever had that many people watch me wrestle."

Still, he found more than enough motivation knowing that in all likelihood he was about to wrestle his last match ever.

"All I was thinking about was all my past work toward this match, and I have to make it happen," he said. "This is going to be the final match of my wrestling career, so I've got to go out and really put on a show."