Here come the Cougars

It didn’t go exactly the way Central Kitsap had it drawn up on paper, but it couldn’t have gone much better for the Cougars at the Class 4A Region I wrestling tournament.

“Boy, what a day, huh?” said a smiling Jim Northcutt, the first-year coach of the Cougars, who qualified six wrestlers for this weekend’s Mat Classic XIV at the Tacoma Dome. Central won a tournament-high four individual champions and had two third-place finishes on Saturday, Feb. 9 at Snohomish High.

“Holy crap!” said Donnie DeRusha, sounding a little bit like the boy wonder himself. “I didn’t know what happened.”

The Caped Crusader would have been proud of DeRusha, the unlikeliest of Cougar champions, and his teammates, who finished a relatively close second to heavily-favored Lake Stevens (161.5 to 151.5) in the team race.

Takedown artist Jason Mendez (130) and Mike Frerichs (140), the tough guy who wears camouflage warmup pants, dominated their weight classes. No surprise there. And Josh Martinelli (152) might have been an underdog, but his victory didn’t shock Northcutt.

“Every week Josh keeps getting better,” Northcutt said of Martinelli. “Since eighth grade, I’ve been putting that kid in every tough situation, moving him around to wrestle the other team’s best guys. It’s finally paid off.”

But DeRusha at 135? Teammate Chad Eickmeyer was suppose to emerge at that weight, not DeRusha.

“Oh my gosh,” Frerichs said of DeRusha’s surprising championship, capped with a first-round pin over Mount Vernon’s Craig Curry in the finals. “I believe Donnie came out of nowhere. I knew he had it in him, but I didn’t know it was going to come out this year. I thought it might be coming out next year, but it sure is exciting.”

The Riddler would have been no match for DeRusha, who opened with a quick (1:15) pin over Snohomish’s Tommy McDonnell, then overwhelmed Everett’s Michael Irwin 17-2 to reach the semifinals, where he ran into Bremerton’s slick Eric Smith. Smith, who along with Eickmeyer had been considered the class of the Narrows League Bridge Division at 135, put DeRusha in a 10-1 hole, but the Central Kitsaper fought back in the final round. DeRusha cut the deficit to 10-5 and then stunned Smith by pinning him with one second left in one of the day’s most dramatic turnarounds.

“I just got lucky,” DeRusha said. “I threw a head-and-arm and it worked.”

The same move worked in the finals, too.

By then, DeRusha was just trying to stay calm.

“Deep down, I thought I could do it, but I just didn’t know if I was going to pull it off,” he said. “I didn’t know if I’d be nervous and stiffen up or what. I tried not to be serious. When I’m serious I wrestle worse. I just tried to have a good time and smile.”

Despite his other 10 wrestlers winning just one of 20 matches (Scott Jennings at 215 was the only other CK matman to score points), Northcutt was smiling a lot while wandering from mat to mat at the Snohomish gym. Northcutt, a four-time state participant who won a championship at 129 pounds as a junior at Hoquiam in 1977 and was runnerup his senior year, is confident in the six Cougars he’s taking to what he calls, “the big dance.”

“We’re not too bad,” he said with a sly grin. “But we’re still rebuilding.”

Except for Mendez, all of the Cougars wrestling at Mat Classic will be underclassmen. DeRusha, Frerichs, Martinelli, and Eickmeyer, who recovered to place third after losing 11-7 to Curry in the semifinals, are juniors. Tyler Moyer, third at 189, is a sophomore, but he doesn’t wrestle like one.

“We’re starting to get respect,” Northcutt said of the Cougars. “Those kids are young and everybody knows it. The kids are starting to believe they can win and that’s the beauty of it.”

Mendez (31-2) returns to the Dome for the second straight year. This time, he’s not just happy to be going.

“That’s what I did wrong last year,” said Mendez, who was out after three matches a year ago. “I just said I wanted to get there. I want to place. That’s what I told myself, but I got there and I saw how huge it was and my eyes got big and I kind of lost my goal-set. This time I’m going to go in there and I’m going to win it. I have a good chance at it and that’s what I’m going to work for (this) week.”

Mendez overwhelmed Craig Zimmerman 20-7 in the finals after winning his first three matches by uncharacteristic pins.

“If it’s there, it’s there, but I just going for wins,” Mendez said.

Of all his wrestlers, Northcutt likes Mendez’s chances the best. Other than 125-pound champ Burke Barnes of Lake Stevens, a three-time state champion who’s rated the top matman in the country at his weight, Mendez was the most impressive wrestler at regionals.

“He’s just a hard-nosed kid,” Northcutt said. “He gets better as the match goes on. He put on a show, he really did.”

Martinelli, who owns a dual-meet win over 160-pound regional champion Evan Winslow of South Kitsap, felt he could get to state, but didn’t think it would be as regional champ.

“I knew I had it in me, but I really didn’t expect this,” he said after beating Brad Kihm of Snohomish 5-2 in the finals. “I thought maybe third or fourth.”

Martinelli got an early shot of confidence after winning his first match in overtime. “That set my tempo and when (Olympic alternate) Cory Brower beat Lake Stevens (No. 1 seed Jeff Nearing), that really helped me feel comfortable,” Martinelli said.

The bullish Frerichs dominated his three opponents despite tweaking an ankle that’s bothered him off and on all season. Frerichs capped a 15-minute stretch in the finals where CK won its four titles with a 12-3 major decision over Willie Ward of Monroe.

“We didn’t think we were going to come in here and pull off all four that we got into the finals, but we sure did,” Frerichs said. “We impressed a lot of people.”

Imagine how impressive it would have been if Moyer hadn’t been hit with a stall warning at the buzzer in his overtime loss in the semifinals and would have won at 189, as Northcutt thought he would. Imagine how impressive it’ll be this weekend at Mat Classic if everything goes exactly the way Northcutt draws it up.

“Next week’s another story,” said Northcutt, who studied the draw sheets earlier this week. “It’s going to be tough. Our kids got some tough draws, but that’s OK. They’re all tough. Our goal is to get some medals. If all our kids are wrestling on Saturday, I’ll be happy.”

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