It's been a long road for Bakersfield High senior Bryce Martin, who has seen just about everything there is to see at the CIF State Wrestling Championships: lower weights, upper weights, losses, wins, a state medal.
Everything except one thing: The raised mat at the end of the tournament where state-championship matches are contested.
Martin, ranked No. 2 in the state at 170 pounds by The California Wrestler, is expected to get there this weekend when this year's state meet gets under way Friday at Rabobank Arena. So, there's pressure to end his high school career in a big way, right?
Nah. Not for Martin.
"Just excitment, no pressure," he said this week, and his smile as he avoided a teammate about to crash into him in the BHS wrestling room backed up his words. "I've watched videos on (four-time NCAA champion) Kyle Dake, and he says if you try to define psychological pressure, it's really something you put on yourself. It's not anybody else. So why would you waste your time doing that to yourself?"
If that sounds like big-world philosophy, consider that Martin (a) already has a scholarship to Indiana, no matter how he does this weekend, and (b) he's been through a lot.
Martin started his career as a 119-pounder that was good but not great; in fact, unlike many heralded freshmen, he didn't qualify for the state tournament that first year. He made it as a 126-pound sophomore but was ousted after going 1-2, swallowed up by the 10-mat, big-crowd atmosphere at Rabobank Arena.
"First time wrestling there, in a big arena, I think it took me by surprise," he said. "It was more about soaking in the experience."
Everything changed for Martin between his sophomore and junior seasons. The most obvious transformation was physically: Martin, who had to cut significant weight to reach 126 as a sophomore, went to the NHSCA sophomore nationals two weeks later at 138 pounds. He placed sixth.
"It's been a very unique journey for him, obviously," BHS coach Andy Varner said. "When kids are young, it's hard to tell how much they're going to grow. He hit a good growth spurt and just wanted to get as big as he could and never have to lose weight. It's really helped him out in the long run."
After nationals, Martin didn't stop growing, getting taller and packing on more muscle that summer. Suddenly, he was a 170-pounder who still had the skills and speed of a lighter wrestler. He shot up the state rankings, won a Central Section championship and placed fourth in the state as a junior.
"It was surprising," Bakersfield coach Andy Varner said. "It's a big difference wrestling 126 and wrestling 170. Guys are bigger and stronger and move a little different. He's such an extremely hard worker, and he had learned to wrestle as a little guy, and that all helps him out. He's one of the toughest, hardest workers we have, and it's paid off over the last couple of years."
As a senior, he has continued that ascent -- he's 34-1, with the only loss to state No. 1 Anthony Valencia of Bellflower-St. John Bosco, who also wrestled 126 two years ago and has since packed on weight but maintained his quickness.
If Martin is to add that state-championship appearance to his resume Saturday night, Valencia likely will be the opponent.
Valencia -- who beat Martin 12-6 in January -- is known as one of the baddest boys on California's block. He's lost just once in three years to an in-state opponent and is ranked third nationally by Intermat (Martin is No. 20).
"He's amazing," Varner said. "You're not one of the top guys in the country for no reason. But the one thing with Bryce is that you can never count him out. I believe in Bryce. He'll obviously have his hands full if he gets there, but he'll give it a go."
Beyond rankings, Valencia is a highlight machine, often flying through the air to get behind opponents and generally wrestling with a subtle arrogance that goes with being the best.
"We know he's No. 1," Martin said. "But if you don't go out there and believe you're going to win, you're not going to. We've both got to get there first, and if we do, it comes down to Saturday."
And if it does, Martin will end a long, winding high school wrestling road in a special place.
"It would be awesome," he said. "Ever since the sixth grade, I've gone to the state meet and seen guys' dreams come true. I've worked for that for five or six years. It would be sweet."