Jake Martinez has taken the “Joe Cool” approach to this postseason.
The Licking Valley freshman is anything but a rookie on the mat. He kept his perfect record of reaching state tournaments intact this past weekend.
Martinez placed second at 106 pounds in the Division II district tournament at Claymont. He is one of four Panthers to qualify for the state tournament, which begins Thursday at Ohio State’s Value City Arena, tying a program record first set in 2012.
“After I won my semifinal match at districts, everyone was more pumped up than I was,” Martinez said. “I think it is because I have always done this. I have always been there. I think it was just a normal feeling.”
Martinez began wrestling in kindergarten and reached his first state tournament in his first try as a first-grader. He has placed every year since, finishing as high as runner-up in seventh grade.
Senior Blake Owens (195), Valley’s only qualifier with state experience at the varsity level, hears Martinez’s calm and confidence. He knows, however, even the coolest customer can be affected by the atmosphere of season’s final tournament.
“I am sure he has been to all kinds of big tournaments, but as soon as you step onto the floor of the (Value City Arena), it is a different feeling,” Owens said. “I don’t think it is anything he has felt before. Certainly, it was all new for me.”
Joining Martinez and Owens are sophomores Ethan Fout (152) and Jaqui Vanmeter (Hwt.) Fout was the unlikeliest of Valley’s qualifiers, if only because he had the longest road.
Fout lost his first-round match in the district tournament. He rebounded and won five straight matches Saturday to reach third place.
“Going into my second match of the day, I knew it was going to be a tough one because (Cambridge’s Kevin Scrudders) had beaten me earlier in the year,” Fout said. “I ended up beating him 20-7, and that momentum helped throughout the day. I knew once I won that match that I wasn’t stopping.”
Fout gained the ultimate revenge in the consolation semifinals. He beat Claymont’s Justice Avery, 12-6, to qualify after Avery had pinned him the night before.
Vanmeter was beaten by a Claymont opponent in the semifinals, but it did not take long for him to bounce back. The Licking County League champion and sectional runner-up added state qualifier to his resume with a 3-2 victory against Carrollton’s Micah Campbell.
“(Valley coach Jeremy Tate) said to have fun because if I didn’t make it, I would have two more years,” Vanmeter said. “But I made it, and that is what I have been planning for all year.”
Owens expected a third matchup with Johnstown unbeaten Clayton Bullard in the district finals. Instead, Owens was upset by Carrollton’s Tyler Dodd in the semifinals. He rebounded to beat Steubenville’s Tim Albertson, 6-3, to qualify.
“Last year, I wrestled (Dodd) twice, and I pinned him both times,” Owens said. “He has improved a lot, and he ended up beating me 6-5. I was definitely trying to focus on my finals match with (Bullard), but I ended up making it too close with Dodd.”
Another matchup between Bullard and Owens could come this weekend. If any rivalry has developed, it is nothing but friendly. Bullard and Heath graduate Travis Drumm were in the Valley practice room Monday, sparring with Owens and Vanmeter.
Tate already has predicted a state title in Martinez’s future. Tate knows how to reach the top of the podium, being a former two-time winner and Valley’s only champion in program history.
“I feel like (Tate) has definitely (set) a bar for us,” Martinez said. “To be the best wrestler every from Licking Valley, you have to win at least two state titles. That is just a goal I want to set. I want to be the best at what I do.”
Martinez will try his best to get to the top. His 8-0 loss to Claymont sophomore Tyler Warner in the district finals was just his third this season. Warner also beat Martinez in the state finals two years ago.
Martinez, however, is not holding a grudge. He returned to Claymont on Sunday to practice with Warner. He has one goal for this weekend.
“I did not feel like I wrestled my match. I let him dominate me. I feel like he intimidated me on the mat, which I cannot let happen,” Martinez said. “I get another stab at it if I wrestle with my head on straight at state. I will see him in the finals again.”