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University High School wrestlers Jake Laden and Dustin Johnson both placed in the 4A state tourney last year, and return for the defending 4A defending champion Titans. Even though they drop down to 3A, the Titans promise to have one of the best teams in the state. (J. Rayniak / The Spokesman-Review)

U-Hi pair part of Titans’ state hopes

University won’t defend its State 4A wrestling championship, but that doesn’t mean the Titans can’t win another state title.

Now a Class 3A school – a move wrestling coach Don Owen opposed when he and his U-Hi coaching colleagues voted whether to opt up and remain 4A or go where the enrollment numbers indicated – U-Hi must prevail in a new classification.

“I know I was a minority member in the building on that one,” Owen said last week. “If you could give me the option of going back up to 4A, I’d take it in a second.”

The thought in his mind was that a drop from 4A to 3A in classification was a comedown. Not that it is necessarily the case.

Owen agrees that the strength of Greater Spokane League wrestling this year rests primarily in four 3A schools and that getting through district will be difficult.

Getting the numbers to Tacoma from region, necessary for a team title challenge, will be tough because the Columbia Basin Big Nine has twice as many 3A schools.

And State 3A this year won’t be a cakewalk since other schools like U-Hi, including last year’s runner-up Tahoma, also moved down.

But Owen feels the Titans have the goods with six returning state qualifiers, five of them placers.

“I feel we have seven or eight kids who are pretty tough and four or five who can win state championships,” Owen said. “We’re not quite as good top to bottom as last year, but we’re still pretty good.”

Upper-weight state title hopefuls Jake Laden and Dustin Johnson are in their fourth varsity seasons and two reasons why the Titans are GSL favorites and state championship hopefuls.

The two have become nearly inseparable. Most recently, they were named team co-inspirational in football and earned first-team All-GSL, Johnson on offense and Laden on defense, as two-way starters for the State 3A qualifiers.

Last February, Laden (“the overtime king,” Johnson said), finished third at 285 pounds after being involved in five successive one-point decisions, three of them in OT.

Johnson placed fourth at 189 after losing in the semifinals, for the fifth time that season to three-time state champion Nick Bayer of Tahoma.

They became acquainted at U-Hi as freshmen and had instant impact. Johnson finished 4-4 in the GSL competing at 171 and 189 pounds. Laden was 2-2 at 215 and 285.

They both qualified for state as sophomores, each going 1-2. And last year they were part of U-Hi’s nine-placer effort that overwhelmed Tahoma 156.5-112.5 for the 4A championship.

Johnson was introduced to Titans wrestling as an eighth-grader, spending time in the practice room after the middle school season ended.

“It showed me where I needed to be and could be,” Johnson said. “It drove me for the next couple of years.”

Laden attended a different middle school and hadn’t wrestled until eighth grade, joining Johnson the next year at U-Hi.

“I didn’t know much about wrestling at that time or what it was about,” he said.

They became practice room partners midway through their sophomore seasons. Both were awed by their first state experience and vowed to improve.

“We traveled everywhere together, went to nationals together, roomed together, flew together,” said Johnson of summer freestyle competition, joking, “and went to the bathroom together.”

Laden had a memorable state tournament last year that included a 2-1 second-round overtime loss, then successive 2-1 (in OT), 3-2, 4-3 (in OT) and 2-1 wins, the latter over teammate Dalton Cosby.

“The first match I pinned the kid and was feeling pretty good there,” he said, thinking, “I’m going to win a state title.”

After the setback he was devastated and in tears, saying he didn’t want to continue and didn’t know how he won most of the others. After placing third he watched a wrestler he had beaten the week before win the state title. It has driven him.

He’ll compete at 285 and 215 this year, Johnson at 215 and 189. Both have their sights set on higher finishes. And it doesn’t matter which classification they are in.

“I’ve got to wrestle every match this year like it’s a state final,” Johnson said. “It’s my last year here and I want to make something of myself.”

“I want to be on top of the podium,” Laden said. “It would probably look better if it was 4A, but a state title is a state title.

“That’s our goal.”