HEBER CITY — Last week, at the UCCU Center on the campus of Utah Valley University, six young men on the Wasatch High School wrestling team climbed to the top step of the podium and had gold medals placed around their necks.
Moments later, the entire Wasatch team created a mountain of bleached-blond locks as they hoisted the hardware from the 22nd team state title in school history.
Although this has been a familiar sight for the Wasp wrestling program, it is not one that will be taken for granted, as the six champs, along with their coach, 5A head coach of the year, Wade Discher, reflected on the championship.
“There was great trust with this group,” Discher said. “As always, we stick to tradition. And traditionally there have been great leaders here. But this year had a little bit of a different feel to it. These guys just naturally became the leaders of this team. The younger guys, all the guys really, just gravitated to this wonderful group right here. It made my job much easier.”
For Discher and his coaching staff, their job may have never been easier than with senior Zak Kohler. Kohler, who competed at 145 pounds this season, dominated his way to his fourth straight Utah state title.
The future Air Force cadet anchored a stretch of five weight classes in the early part of the lineup for the Wasps that ran the table throughout the state tournament. The final meet for Kohler as a high school wrestler came with many emotions.
“It would have sucked, for sure,” Kohler stated when asked if he gave much thought into losing his last final, after having won three. “I wasn’t stressing it too much. Like feeling any pressure or anything like that. I knew I had put in the work to be ready. I knew our coaches were doing everything necessary to have us prepared. So I just took that out there and stayed focused on what I needed to do.”
The same approach was taken by fellow senior Mitchel Slack, who, for most of the season, set the tone for the Wasps at 120 pounds.
Slack wrestled at a fast and furious pace during the two-day state event and felt he was on mission to win his second straight gold medal. “I just had the mindset of, 'no one is taking this from me,'” Slack said. “It started for me last February after winning. I just kept working out, focused on my conditioning and my training. I wanted to do it again. I was just like, this is mine.”
Slack, who took the Wasps’ second-place team finish in 5A a year ago to heart, said he wanted to do everything he could to make sure his team redeemed itself this winter.
“I definitely feel that we underachieved last year,” the senior said. “We should have won it. There were different reasons maybe, but it was good that we changed things up this year to make sure that didn’t happen again. I know I was going to give it my all and I think everybody just really stepped up.”
The third senior on the Wasatch roster to win the gold was Porter Chamberlain at 170 pounds. Chamberlain, perhaps a late bloomer as far as individual accomplishments, was a runner-up last season and was determined to come out on top this time around.
“I was a little bit nervous at first going out there,” Chamberlain admitted. “But Zak and Garth, one of our other coaches, just calmed me down. They said it’s just another match and to go out and have fun. So as soon as it started, that’s what it was… just another match.”
Discher was quick to point out how far the senior has come. “Porter has really come a long way. He’s dedicated himself to the sport. I think he wanted another shot at that championship after last year. It really stayed with him and that motivated his work ethic."
Even after graduating the three senior champs, Wasatch will have plenty of fuel left in the tank for next season.
A pair of its gold medal winners are juniors and will be returning to recapture state. Sammy Heywood at 132 pounds and Stockton O’Brien at 138 pounds were both returning champions from 2018 when they took to the mats this year in the state tournament.
Heywood, as cool as they come, had already lived up to expectations set by his two older brothers, Spencer and Ritchie Heywood, by winning a title last season. So according to the two-time champion, he was just able to go out and do what he had done all season.
“It was such a fun year for this team and everybody was just really determined to win, that it didn’t feel like a pressure situation at all,” Heywood stated. “I felt pretty confident all year. I had wrestled pretty good and knew I was prepared. It definitely helps to have been there before.”
Heywood said he won’t worry about his third state title until next season. “I’m just going to focus on winning tournaments this summer,” he added. “There’s a lot of wrestling ahead and some fun trips with these guys. We’ve been like a team of brothers for so long it’s just really a great time.”
O’Brien dominated at 138 this entire campaign, earning All-American status in Reno back in December and tearing up the 5A competition leading up to state.
The junior took his third straight Utah gold medal and will look to join his teammate Kohler, as a rare four-time champion, next year.
“I think this may have been the most fun year I’ve ever had in wrestling,” Stockton said. “This team has been such a great group of guys, it’s kind of a shock that it’s over. But we’ll stick together, a lot of us, and continue on to nationals.”
Even with the individual accomplishment of winning three straight golds, Stockton is most proud of his team coming back to win it all this year. “It was way important to us,” he added. “Even for me, winning it last year, there was still an empty feeling. Almost kind of a bummer to watch another team win the trophy. I think that sort of drove us all year.”
As with every passing season in high school sports, attrition takes its toll on programs. Yet Wasatch has been able to continue to restock the pond.
River Wardle, a sophomore at Wasatch this season, quickly fit in with his new team and worked his way to a second straight championship. Wardle took the 106-pound title in 2018 as a freshman at Herriman High School.
For Wardle, it was a perfect match for him to join the Wasps after his family moved to Heber City.
“It’s just been amazing,” Wardle said. “The families up here. The community support for wrestling, it's just unreal. I love it up here and competing with these guys.”
Wardle, who worked out with the Wasatch team last summer and also played football, said he felt totally at ease with his new school and teammates. “I’ve known Coach Discher and some of these guys from other tournaments and stuff, so it wasn’t a total change. Getting the chance to wrestle here though has just been amazing,” he added.Comment on this story
“I wanted to just come up and fit in. Being able to win a gold medal in my first year was really awesome, but winning the team championship was even better. I love it here and I’m just so excited to keep competing and hopefully win two more.”
All six of the newly crowned individual champs will continue to wrestle this summer as the team will travel to nationals and to other tournaments across the U.S. For Coach Discher and his champions, it gives the historical Wasatch program a few more bragging rights as it continues to build its legend.