By Brian Eller - email@example.com
SALEM -- Last weekend, a teary-eyed Colin Barnes stood alone at the edge of the mat.
He had lost the regional championship, falling for just the second time all season to Manassas Park's Issac Velasquez. He moved only slightly from side-to-side, wanting more than anything to go back in time for another shot at the match that got away. He didn't say anything, but he didn't have to. Anyone watching him could tell that loss hurt and see this wasn't the way Barnes had envisioned his senior season.
Just one week later, Barnes was back standing at the edge of the mat, this time just minutes away from wrestling for his chance at a state championship. He hadn't forgotten the loss to Velasquez in the regional tournament. In fact, he embraced it. After three wins, including an emotional 7-6 comeback win in the semifinals, Barnes had advanced to the state championships, where Rural Retreat's William Wright, who defeated Velasquez just one round earlier, waited to keep Barnes from achieving his ultimate goal.
But this wasn't the same Barnes from a week ago. He was moving along the edge of the mat, pacing back and forth like he usually did before a match. It wasn't a nervous pace, rather a focused one. A pace that told Wright he would be in for the match of his life. A pace that let those watching Barnes know this tournament wasn't going to end like the last one. He was one match away. Six minutes from becoming a state champion. And as the opening whistle blew, the countdown toward a dream began.
Wrestlers have a certain image to uphold. They're supposed to be tough, strong, intense with an aggressive way about them. They have strict training routines, feel most comfortable in a sweatshirt and sweatpants and walk around as if they're going to be the best in the room. To say Barnes doesn't fit that mold is certainly not true. When it's time to get down to business, the Strasburg senior is as focused as they come. He trains every day, dons that familiar gray and purple sweatshirt that says, "Strasburg Wrestling" across the front and walks into a gym ready to face anyone who stands in his way.
But that's just one side of Barnes. The other side shows a playful comedian, the guy on the team who is good for a few laughs and can make talking to a stranger seem like a conversation between lifelong friends. He jokes with reporters who want to know how he's feeling after a match and has no problem making it known if he's upset with something. At the state tournament this past weekend, Barnes was walking around inbetween matches, when he ran into his arch rival, Velasquez. It was early in the second day, and the two were unsure whether they'd have to face off for a third time this season. But watching the two it would seem they had no history on the mat. They were engaged in conversation, laughing at something that struck up more words from Barnes.
It takes great discipline to maintain concentration, particularly in a tournament where several matches await a wrestler over the course of a few days. But what takes even more discipline is to be able to switch that concentration on and off, or at least shift it to the back burner. Barnes can do that. He can joke around with an opponent, strap his headgear on, pound him into the ground for six minutes, then continue his conversation with that same opponent a few minutes later, as if the match never happened. It's that ability to focus on call that keeps Barnes from nestling into the mold of the "typical wrestler." But as Barnes knows all too well, so many typical wrestlers don't get a shot at a state championship.
Wright and Barnes remained locked in a grapple. Neither wrestler wanted to make the first move, knowing one slip-up could cost them valuable points. Heading into the match, Barnes and Strasburg coach Rick Bowley sat down and looked at film of Wright, and determined the way to beat him was to win the match on his feet.
"We knew that Wright was defensive on his feet," Bowley said. "He really didn't shoot but was really good at defense, sprawling and spinning and he had a good slideback. So we wanted to stay away from a slideback, get some shots, some singles and doubles to get some takedowns and then we knew that he was very good on top with legs and tilts. So we were never going to be on the bottom. We never wanted to give him that chance to make. We weren't going to go to the bottom. We were going to go back to our feet and win or lose on our feet."
Somewhere along the way, however, Barnes went in for a shot and missed. Wright took the opportunity to capitalize. He spun over top of Barnes, giving him the opening two points of the match as time ran down in the first period. With Wright on top of him, Barnes looked up at his coaches to see what move they'd suggest. Barnes immediately tried to slide to his butt in an attempt to swing around and counter the move. With time winding down in the opening period, the Strasburg fans grew louder, letting Barnes know this was the time to make his move. With a thrust of his body, Barnes turned to the offensive, gaining leverage on Wright and scoring two points to tie the match, 2-2, at the end of the first period.
Every athlete has something they're trying to live up to. Whether it's surpassing someone's statistical record, living up to another's legacy or perhaps trying to leave their own legacy, athletes are always trying to become better than their predecessors. For Barnes, the man before him was Carlos Ortiz. Ortiz wrestled for Strasburg for four years, graduating in 2008. He won a state title at 189 pounds his senior year and graduated with a school record 176 wins. Barnes was just a sophomore that season, and was just starting to blossom into a force for the Rams.
"I was just a freshman and a sophomore when Carlos was doing his thing," Barnes recalled. "We were friends but we weren't that close."
Still, Barnes had something to shoot for, someone to live up to. Two years later, it's Barnes with the legacy that will have to be chased. And like always, there's a young corps of talent waiting to outshine the upperclassmen. This season the young gun came in the form of Lance Ford, the 103-pound freshman who from Day 1 strived to be the top wrestler in his class. Fortunately for Ford, Barnes was able to wrestle alongside of him for one season, giving him the chance to listen and learn from Barnes.
"All of the coaches and my teammates, Bobby Rager and Colin have been so great to me this season," Ford said. "They're like idols to me."
Barnes, on the other hand, has nothing but admiration for his freshman teammate. In most high school settings a senior wouldn't be caught dead chatting it up with a freshman. But not Barnes and Ford. To Barnes, Ford is an inspiration.
"I see Lance as a hero to me," Barnes said. "Lance is a hero because he never stops. He's intense 100 percent of the time."
In just his first season, Ford advanced all the way to the state finals, giving Barnes a teammate to warm up with prior to the championship round. As they always do before a match, the two gave each other two-handed high fives, letting them know they have each others' support. And although Ford fell in his match at the 103-pound class, Barnes was determined not to let his team go 0-for-2.
Barnes knew he had to stay on his feet as much as he could in order to take advantage of Wright. After Wright picked up the decision toss, he deferred, giving Barnes the option of where to start the second period. Strategically, he chose neutral, not allowing Wright the chance to get Barnes off his feet.
The decision paid off. Barnes swung around on Wright, using his force to send him to the ground to take a 4-2 lead. From there time became his enemy. Barnes stayed in control, occasionally glancing over to the coaches to make sure he was doing the correct move.
"My plan was not to let him get on top," Barnes said. "We watched him earlier in the day and he ran legs and he tilted a lot. He's a little lankier than me and we wanted to stay on my feet."
As the horn sounded for the second period Barnes knew he was close. So close. Two minutes away from his title. It wouldn't be easy, however. With Wright gaining the decision to start the final period, he knew he wanted Barnes to start on the bottom. The championship for Barnes wouldn't come that easily.
For the seniors at the state tournament, this past weekend was the end of their high school careers. Now, it's only a few months until graduation, after which college, the armed forces or a job await these athletes. Like a lot of youths, Barnes is undecided on what his plans are for the future. But he said he plans to continue his education.
When asked what colleges he's looked at, Barnes smiled and revealed his aspirations to become a chef.
"I'm going to culinary school," he said. "I love cooking, man. I love it."
It's hard to imagine Barnes as a chef, or even cooking a meal in the kitchen. Sure, guys like to eat, but Barnes said it's his favorite thing to do. Wrestling isn't in his future, at least not at the collegiate level. Instead, he'll focus on his love of cooking. Maybe that's why he moved up a weight class at the beginning of this season. After competing at 160 pounds his sophomore and junior years, Barnes bulked up to 171, where he said he feels more comfortable and confident.
At 160, Barnes said he was always worried about making the weigh-in, and was only wrestling at around "80, 85 percent." This season, however, Barnes was able to move up a class and not worry about skipping those last few meals to make the weight. He said he was wrestling at "110 percent" now, and with one period left in his championship match, he was going to need every ounce of that strength to bring home the title.
A two-point lead in wrestling is nothing. It's minuscule. It can be lost in a second if you're not careful. With just one period left, Barnes held a 4-2 lead but had to start at the bottom position. Time seemed to slow down, particularly for the Strasburg fans who began to cringe and avert their eyes from the match.
Early on, however, those eyes directed themselves back to the mat, as Barnes was able to secure another takedown, increasing his cushion to 6-2. After a point went to Wright for an escape, the two once again locked arms as the clock ran down to 30 seconds.
Both coaches were shouting, trying their hardest to yell over top of the screaming fans, who could barely stand to watch the final seconds.
As the clock reached five seconds, the Strasburg fans were already too loud for comfort. Five, four, three, two, one. Match over. Barnes had won the Group A State Championship at 171 pounds with a 6-3 win over Wright. After the final whistle, his arms went straight to the sky, unleashing all of the emotion, all of the frustration and all of the passion that had been invested over the past four years.
Wright ran off the mat, heartbroken at the defeat, a feeling Barnes had experienced just a week earlier. But that was last week. And this was now. He jumped into Bowley's arms as tears of joy began to escape.
He had won a state championship. His goal had been fulfilled and his high school career had been capped off perfectly.
With his teammates embracing him and friends all wanting a picture with him, Barnes began to realize what had just happened. The thought of being a state champion began to sink in and all of the work that had been put in had come to fruition.
Just one week earlier, a teary-eyed Barnes was standing at the edge of the wrestling mat, wishing he could take his loss to Velasquez back. Now, he didn't want to take any of it back. Not the pain of training for the sport. Not the time invested in being the best. Not even the losses to Velasquez. It was all needed to help mold the career of Barnes, the comedic, culinary enthusiast who could now add another character to his arsenal: State champion.
"I've been wrestling since I was 8 years old," Barnes said. "All of that hard work was worth it. I can't believe it. It's surreal."