Montesano High School senior Taylor Rupe has embraced the role of underdog throughout his high school wrestling career.
It’s completely understandable as we all like to see the individual everyone is betting against triumph against insurmountable odds. But for Rupe and his Montesano wrestling teammates, there’s just one problem this season.
Somewhere along the way they went from being a plucky David to a dominating Goliath.
“It definitely has a different feel this year. We now have a target on our backs. This huge, bright red target that everyone is looking at,” Rupe said. “We’re now the team all the other teams get up for. So, you have to show up prepared every night out.”
Rupe is the defending Class 1A state heavyweight champion, while Austin Cain was the 152-pound champ last season. They are joined on the Bulldogs’ deep roster by junior Tony Williams, last year’s 126-pound runner-up, and seniors Jacob Ellesfson, who placed fourth at 120 pounds last year, and Tyler Izatt, the eighth-place 126-pound finisher in 2016, giving the Bulldogs a powerful core heading into the postseason.
“This group of seniors has really been the backbone of our team the last four years,” Montesano coach Jeff Klinger said. “We had a couple kids in the last two senior classes who were important. Anthony (Louthan) two years ago and Kyle (Prante) last year. Those two guys really did a lot to attract wrestlers to this program and this year’s seniors have just continued what the guys before them started.”
Montesano has placed in the top eight as a team five times at the state tournament and this year’s senior class has been instrumental of two of those banners, helping the Bulldogs finished third overall two years ago.
The goal is simple for Rupe, Cain and the rest of the seniors – leave the program better than when they arrived, and they are certainly well on their way to doing just that.
“That’s something I stole from football. (Montesano football coach) Terry Jensen instilled that and it has turned into my coaching philosophy here,” Klinger said. “A lot of these wrestlers are football players. Eighty percent of our kids also play football. So, it was easy to reinforce that attitude. They’ve seen the success in football and want to have that here. It’s just improved each year with them.”
The bulk of this year’s seniors are actually one of the first classes to emerge from the ranks of the successful Montesano Mad Dogs, a youth wrestling club for kids ages 5-12, a fact that has helped the high school program grow substantially over recent years.
“It all started there for us,” Rupe said. “We were kind of the beginning of the little Mad Dogs program. It’s just nice going from eight or nine kids on the wrestling team during my freshman year to having 30 or so on the team now. We’ve talked about it a lot, seeing the program grow. We take a lot of pride in our role in that.”
And watching Rupe, Cain and company excel at the state tournament has only increased the interest in the sport locally as, according to Klinger, the program expects at least 12 incoming freshmen, if not more, on the team next season who hail from the Mad Dogs.
“Football is tradition here. I wrestled here (in high school), but we don’t have the tradition like we do in football,” Klinger said. “Everyone wants to play football here. They think of us as a football town. It took longer than we thought it would, but people are starting to think of us a wrestling school too.”
Something which will only be greatly enhanced with a few more state champions – an accomplishment which is very reachable for this year’s seniors.
Rupe and Cain head into the postseason as the top-ranked wrestlers in the heavyweight and 160-pound divisions, respectively.
Ellesfson, a three-time state placer who was a runner-up in 2015, is ranked fifth among 126-pound wrestlers. Izatt is ranked ninth in the 132-pound division and Williams is second at 138.
“This is the hardest working group of kids I’ve ever had here and I think that stems from seeing the seniors before them put in all that work,” Klinger said. “The thing I like to tell everyone is this is a group of wrestlers who know what it takes to get into the finals.”