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MAN ON FIRE: Elgin/Imbler 125-pound wrestler Justin Sanders is 14-0 so far this season after qualifying for state in 2004 at 112 pounds. (The Observer/TONY ADAME).
MAN ON FIRE: Elgin/Imbler 125-pound wrestler Justin Sanders is 14-0 so far this season after qualifying for state in 2004 at 112 pounds. (The Observer/TONY ADAME).

Tony Adame

Staff Writer

It's not hard for Elgin/Imbler head wrestling coach Rocky Burgess to categorize sophomore Justin Sanders' improvement from last season to this season.

In fact, he can measure it in words.

"Last year Justin maybe spoke five or six words to me," Burgess said. "He just wasn't very outgoing in that sense.

"This year he's opened up a little bit."

Sanders has opened up alright, and in the process he's also opened some eyes as to what type of a wrestler he is.

Sanders is 14-0 in the 125-pound weight class this season after qualifying for state in 2004 at 112 pounds.

The highlight of Sanders' season so far occurred at the Jo-Hi Invitational Dec. 30 when he beat Culver senior James Moyses, last season's 2A/1A runner-up at state at 112 pounds, in the finals.

"Last year we wrestled and (Moyses) beat me in the first round," Sanders said. "Last season if I had a senior I would get nervous, intimidated. That's not happening this year."

With the recent return of 189-pounder Jeff Smith, Burgess now has two state qualifiers in his lineup, and both have undefeated records.

"Justin is extremely motivated," said Smith, who is 9-0 since coming back after knee surgery. "He pushes himself to be better. I think he could be a two- or three-time state champion."

If Sanders were to win a state title, he would be the second Sanders sibling to have accomplished such a feat.

His older brother, Brian, won a 2A/1A state title for Elgin in 2002 at 135 pounds.

And, as most big brothers would, he lets his little brother hear about it.

"Yeah, he eggs me on a little bit," Justin said, smiling. "He'll say stuff like, ‘you're nothing if you don't win one,' or whatever. It helps keep me going."

Elgin/Imbler assistant coach Jason Lathrop said that he and Burgess' goal for Justin before the season was to be in the top three at state, so his success on the mat has not surprised them as much as other things.

"The biggest surprise this year has been his maturity," Lathrop said. "Justin works well with all the other kids. A lot of the other wrestlers have looked up to Jeff, but since he's so big it wasn't like he could wrestle with them.

"Now, with Justin doing so well, these smaller kids want to work with him."

Both coaches say that Justin's offense needs work, but defensively he's hard to handle.

"When he's on the bottom I don't know that there's anyone that can hold him," Burgess said. "As soon as he gets everything together it'll be all his."

And someday soon, Brian Sanders may have some company in the family trophy case.

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