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WRESTLING: Kentwood strong on mat; Navejas ready for triumphant finish

Kentwood
Kentwood's Ruben Navejas, right, and Tahoma's Steven Hopkins are two of the state's top-returning wrestlers. Hopkins upended Navejas for the 103-pound state title last February. Navejas, however, knocked off Hopkins last week in double-overtime during the 119-pound bout. Navejas will be competing at 112 for the postseason while Hopkins will remain at 119.
— image credit: CHARLES CORTES/Kent Reporter

What if?

That thought has gone through the mind of Kentwood High senior Ruben Navejas more than a handful of times since last year’s Class 4A state wrestling tournament, and understandably so.

Navejas, competing at 103 pounds, entered the title match against Tahoma’s Steven Hopkins as the weight class’ top-ranked wrestler and sporting an impressive 39-2 record. He was the defending state champion and was a favorite to repeat.

In slightly more than a blink of an eye, Navejas’ back-to-back title aspirations disappeared. Leading the lanky and strong Tahoma wrestler 2-0 with 30 seconds remaining in the final period, Hopkins reversed the Kentwood star. Seconds later — and with just two seconds left in the bout — Navejas was pinned.

Those state title dreams?

Dashed.

“It was pretty hard,” admitted Navejas, who entered this season earlier this month with a 119-7 overall record to go along with a title, a second-place and a fifth-place finish from the state tournament. “I think back and (wonder) what I could have done different. I worked on what I needed to do after watching it. I just didn’t bring what I needed. I didn’t come with my game plan. I wrestled to his game plan.”

Needless to say, Navejas’ game plan this winter is in full effect.

To see just how much, one doesn’t need to look any further than last week’s 5-3 double-overtime victory over Hopkins in the 119-pound bout. Trailing 3-1 with under 20 seconds remaining, Navejas reversed Hopkins to tie the match at 3-3. A takedown in the second overtime clinched the win. Just days after the victory, Navejas continued his winning ways, ripping apart the 119-pound weight class during the Border at the Battle in Blaine, securing the title after working over Squalicum’s Ren Bishop 13-1.

As for last year’s second-place finish?

It’s a motivator for one of the finest wrestlers to ever come out of the Kentwood High program.

“It’s a big motivation for me after losing in the state finals after winning it once,” said Navejas, who will drop down to 112 pounds for the postseason. “I need to stay tough and I have to bring my offense to the table.”

Offense is something Kentwood has plenty of this winter. As much was evident during last weekend’s Battle at the Border. While Navejas showed he was in midseason form, he wasn’t alone among Conquerors who shined. James Hatfield, a junior, showed he’s ready to emerge as one of the top wrestlers in the South Puget Sound League North Division, dominating the 215-pound bracket. In five matches, Hatfield collected four pins that lasted less than 10 minutes overall. Hatfield pinned Steven Elsner of Mount Baker in 3:35 for the crown.

“He’s a very strong kid,” said Kentwood coach Ken Sroka, pointing out that Hatfield has a strong chance of making a state appearance in February. “He’s just a monster.”

Kentwood also received a third-place finish out of senior Hayden Peterson at 125 pounds. Peterson took fifth at state last year, a run that included a 29-13 overall record.

“He is just as explosive as ever,” Sroka said of Peterson. “He’s going to have that senior chip on his shoulder and we will see where it lands.”

Kentwood finished second overall in the 20-team tournament with 210 points, just behind first-place Mount Baker (238).

Adding to the Kentwood firepower is Jose Hernandez (125), Lucas Kelley (171) and Daniel Park (285). Hernandez was a state participant last year and, like Kelley and Park, has a strong shot of advancing to state in February.

The key for the Conks, however, is Navejas.

And last week’s win over Hopkins proved pivotal.

“It was pretty big,” he said. “It was an important match for me.”

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