ARLINGTON — On the side and back walls inside Arlington High School’s wrestling room hang dozens of plaques celebrating the achievements of previous wrestlers who placed at state.
A large circle hangs in the center of the back wall. The words “Arlington Wrestling” are in a white color placed as the logo’s border. The eagle mascot, also in white, rests in the middle of the structure. The entire design sits on a navy blue background with wings protruding from the sides to represent the full intricacies of the fierce bird.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in late November. The room is filled with a large group of high schoolers ranging from freshmen to seniors. The smell? Stuffy and sweaty. The max capacity sign near the doors reads 69, which this year will be pushed to its full given the large number of new participants in the program. Head coach Jonny Gilbertson said there are about 80 kids registered to wrestle for the boys team this season, which is close to two dozen more than the previous year.
With many new additions and those returning, there’s much hope for what’s to come this season. In regards to the postseason, qualifying for a medal match is not uncommon for Arlington. At Mat Classic XXXIV in February, the boys team placed 13 out of 75 schools, and it returns all three of its state placers.
Dustin Baxter placed second in the 152-pound weight class as a junior last season, an improvement from the previous year where he took third at 138. Tre Haines and Beau Gudde, both freshmen last season, received spots on the podium as well. Haines placed first at 138 and Gudde eighth at 126.
Using past results to improve
After Baxter’s 4-2 sudden victory defeat in the finals match last year, Gilbertson said, “It’s a heartbreaker for a kid who wants it so bad to lose in overtime. The good thing is that he’s got one more shot, and that’s the first thing he said [after].”
Moving up to the 165-pound weight class this year and learning from the matches where he placed second and third, Baxter is ready to make his senior year one to remember with sights set on first place.
“I’ve been practicing pretty hard and setting my goals, and I think I can do it this year,” he said. “All the kids who look pretty good, they also look beatable.”
Not wanting to put too much attention into the future with the season just starting, Baxter’s plan is to “wrestle smarter, more aggressive, faster, stronger and bring up the whole game plan to another level.”
Haines already knows the feeling of placing first at state and is looking for back-to-back championships. Last year, it didn’t matter to him what age his opponents were as long as the referee raised his hand at the end of the match.
“I realized I could hang with all the seniors, juniors, all that,” Haines said. “Jonny taught me that no matter who the wrestler is, if it’s a two, three-time state champ or finalist, just to believe in myself and what I can do and keep wresting like me — don’t wrestle their match, wrestle my match. My freshman year, that’s what really changed my mindset.”
Last season, it was difficult for Gudde to stay healthy. He missed many of the team’s practices due to injury, but this season he hopes to keep his body match-ready since he’s going from 126 to 138.
“Get points,” said Gudde of his strategy in matches. “Don’t waste all your energy in the first two periods because if it’s a good wrestler like at state, you’re really going to need that push in the third period to keep going.”
Leaving a lasting impression
Nothing can slow down the time before the seniors wrestle their last match of their high school careers.
One of those Eagles preparing to leave the nest is Baxter. He said his journey after Arlington will be going on a two-year mission with his church before coming back and deciding to either enroll in a trade school, community college or four-year university. He’s also looking to possibly join the a school’s wrestling team.
Haines said he’s looked up to Baxter since they’ve both sparred at the Arlington-based Punisher Wrestling Company for years.
“He leaves it all on the mat,” Haines said of Baxter. “Even if he’s down five points or up six, he’s still wrestling no matter what. He’s always moving, doing something.”
Gudde also prided his teammate on the leader he’s been for the program and the expectations he’s left for his younger teammates.
“Anything can happen. Dustin didn’t use to be the best, but now he’s here getting second at state. Never give up because he’s reaching his goals,” Gudde said. “He got third sophomore year, second junior year, he’s going for [the state title] this year. If you follow your dreams, I feel like you can succeed in anything.”
Gilbertson has coached Baxter for his entire high school career, and he expects nothing else from him besides his best.
“For him, don’t let the stress get to you like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is my last chance. It has to happen.’ That kind of pressure is what crumbles people,” Gilbertson said. “So it’s just reminding him that the wins and losses and gold medals, it is what it is. At the end of the day, it’s the journey. It’s ‘what did you learn? What kind of skill set are you going to take from this sport that you can apply later in life? And what kind of a legacy are you going to leave?’
“Regardless of whether or not he wins the state title, I’m already proud of him,” he continued. “The work that he’s put into the sport, the leadership in this program and the guys he’s brought around with him, we’re going to love him at the end of the day just like his parents are. Do we want him to win? Of course we do.“