Over the past three-and-a-half decades, Brent Barnes built Lake Stevens into one of the most accomplished high school wrestling programs in state history.
His teams have been a yearly fixture each February in the Tacoma Dome, where the Vikings’ legendary coach has guided a parade of champions and medalists to state glory.
This season, Barnes heads to Mat Classic XXXIII with another talented group. Lake Stevens qualified 13 wrestlers for state and is expected to be among the top contenders in the Class 4A team championship race.
And with it being Barnes’ final season at the helm, the Vikings hope to send him out in style.
“I grew up in Lake Stevens, so I watched him win a bunch of titles, and it was always a dream to win a team title myself,” Lake Stevens standout senior Tyler Fouts said. “And this is our last chance to do it, so I think we all want to win one more for him.
“That was the goal freshman year when we came in. And it’s the same goal we have now.”
Barnes is set to retire after the Mat Classic following 35 seasons as the Vikings’ head coach.
And my, what a career it’s been.
Barnes has coached Lake Stevens to a whopping 11 4A state team titles, which is more than any other coach in state wrestling history. It began with the program’s first-ever state championship in 1990, followed by a remarkable stretch of 10 state titles in 17 seasons from 2000 through 2016.
Barnes also has coached 41 individual state champions. At one point, his program had a jaw-dropping streak of 22 consecutive seasons with at least one state champ.
But beyond the program’s staggering list of achievements under Barnes, his wrestlers describe him as a father figure who has helped mold them both on and off the mat.
“He’s meant just about everything to me,” Fouts said. “He’s become like a second dad to me. He’s seen me at my lowest and my highest. He’s always there to pick me up if I need it or humble me if I need it.”
Wyatt Springer, another senior standout for the Vikings, echoed that sentiment.
“He teaches you just as much about life as he does about wrestling,” Springer said. “For every takedown we learn in the room, there’s a life lesson he teaches us.
“I can relate every ounce of success I’ve ever had back to wrestling,” he added. “And my biggest wrestling influence has been Barnes. So I feel like I owe him a lot of my success in all aspects of life.”
Barnes, meanwhile, reciprocated praise and admiration for his seniors after everything they’ve endured the past two years.
Like wrestlers across the state, Lake Stevens’ seniors have persevered through myriad pandemic-related challenges — including the cancellation of last year’s postseason and Mat Classic.
“Great resilience and great attitude,” Barnes said of his senior class. “When you take something away from somebody, it makes them want to do it even worse. So it makes them even a little bit more invested.
“Their maturity levels are off the charts as seniors as far as how they view the sport, the importance of it to them (and) the work ethic that you have to put into it,” he added. “And as this season’s gone along, they’ve really come into their own as leaders and examples, and have been really good for our underclassmen to watch.”
For Fouts and Springer, the cancellation of last year’s Mat Classic wiped away a chance for them to compete for state titles. Both earned 4A state medals in 2020, with Fouts placing fourth at 120 pounds and Springer taking fifth at 152 pounds.
But as Barnes said, the missed opportunity has only further fueled their fire.
“It really sucked coming off of sophomore year,” Fouts said. “I really thought I was ready to make that push for a title last year and didn’t get the opportunity. So it took away a whole season. … But I think it just added more motivation to come out bigger and better this year.”
For Jackson Balmer, another Lake Stevens standout senior, the cancellation of last year’s Mat Classic took away an opportunity for him to showcase how much he’d improved between his sophomore and junior years.
“I didn’t have a chance to show how good I got,” Balmer said. “(But) this year I do, so I’m excited.”
The Vikings enter Mat Classic as the third-ranked team in 4A, according to Washington Wrestling Report. Eastern Washington powers Sunnyside and Chiawana — the top two 4A team finishers at the 2020 Mat Classic — are ranked No. 1 and No. 2.
Lake Stevens took second place in last Saturday’s 4A Region 1 Tournament, finishing 29.5 points behind 4A fourth-ranked Tahoma in a tightly contested battle for the regional crown.
“We’re peaking right now,” Fouts said. “I think we haven’t shown our best yet. I think we’re better now than we were even (this past weekend). I think every day we’re getting better. … We’re right where we want to be.”
Fouts (145 pounds) and Springer (160) are both ranked No. 2 in their respective 4A weight classes, per Washington Wrestling Report.
Balmer (152), senior Sean Sanchez (182), sophomore Koen Mattern (220) and sophomore Jacob Christianson (106) each hold No. 5 rankings. Senior Theron Tate (126) has a No. 6 ranking.
Rounding out the Vikings’ state qualifiers are junior Lucas Overland (No. 8 at 195), sophomore Troy Valentine (No. 8 at 106), sophomore Edrik Khanpet (No. 8 at 120), junior Trevor Wilson (No. 10 at 120), sophomore Kael Anderson (No. 11 at 132) and sophomore Jaden Jennings (No. 13 at 126).
“We’re in a good place,” Springer said. “That’s what Barnes is kind of known for — we’re always the most ready when state rolls around. … Every year we come in super underrated and always show out.”
Barnes said he was pleased with advancing 13 wrestlers to state, including a trio of regional champions in Fouts, Sanchez and Khanpet.
And Barnes was particulary proud of his five wrestlers who won third-place matches at regionals, which guaranteed that all 13 state-bound Vikings are coming off top-three regional finishes.
“That’s a huge deal considering if you’re (a fourth-place finisher), you’re wrestling a regional champ in the first round of the state tournament,” Barnes said. “So that was awesome.
“This is a good crew,” he added. “This is a really good group of kids, and they’re gonna make some noise down at Tacoma.”
Even with the COVID-related challenges that have impacted high school sports this winter, Barnes said this group of wrestlers have made it a particularly enjoyable and rewarding final season for him.
“I feel like I’m leaving with the best possible situation,” he said. “I can retire with a really good feeling about this last year. I couldn’t have asked for anything better as far as the kids and the coaches.”
And heading into the Mat Classic, Barnes and the Vikings are right where they want to be.
“You have a handful of teams at this stage of the season that could say, ‘Man, we’ve got a shot,’” Barnes said. “There’s a handful of teams at every level, and we’re one of them. We put ourselves in a position to have a shot, which is all you can ask for.
“Now we’ve just gotta go and have fun and enjoy the moment.”