It's been a humbling year for Kyle Barnes. One he never saw coming.
This was supposed to be a year on cruise control. The hard part of his career had already been accomplished.
A year ago he completed every challenge put in front of him, doing everything he possibly could to announce his presence as a wrestling threat on a statewide level. The Hughesville senior felt at the start of his junior season a year ago he was one of the best wrestlers in the state. He proved it, walking away from Hershey in March with a silver medal, becoming the Spartans' first state finalist since Greg Budman in 1991.
Kyle Barnes, left, is Hughesville’s all-time wins leader at 126.
This season was supposed to be his opportunity to pound on opponents, to take that next step from being a contender for a state title to being a favorite for a state title. But this season hasn't gone nearly as Barnes expected.
He had to battle back for third place at the regional tournament a week ago just for the opportunity to return to Hershey for a second time. It hasn't been quite how Barnes envisioned his senior year going, but he's still focused on becoming Hughesville's first state champion since Budman won a gold medal in 1990.
"The losses only help me stay focused more. It helps me push," Barnes said after finishing third at regionals. "It helps me train harder. It helps me through those extra workouts when some people are going home to relax and play some video games."
There's no interest for Barnes in playing video games. He has four brothers and learned from an early age that his talents were definitely better suited to being on the mat.
Instead all of his focus has been on getting the gold medal which has eluded a storied Hughesville program for the last 20 years. But there's been hiccups along the road this year. Unexpected hiccups.
Expecting another season like the one he had a year ago where he didn't suffer his first loss until the last match of the season wouldn't have been fair. But the four losses on Barnes' resume heading into the state tournament weren't expected.
Barnes was surprised early in the season by Crestwood's Matt Hammerstone, a senior who had never before competed at the state tournament. He was beaten soundly in the Spartans' debut in the PIAA Duals tournament by a four-year starter from Saucon Valley named Travis Buddock, who had only ever once advanced out of the District 11 tournament.
And then there were disappointing endings to brilliant matches with Southern Columbia freshman Blake Marks and Milton junior Ryan Preisch at the District 4 and Northeast Regional tournaments, two losses which seemed to have clearly shaken the senior's confidence.
"The losses definitely humbled me," Barnes said. "It's frustrating beyond words. I can't tell you how bad it is, especially knowing I'm right there with the best kids, and then I come (to the regional tournament) and take third."
Three of Barnes' four losses this year were close. He lost to Hammerstone by just two points. He lost to Preisch 1-0 in a fantastic match. And he was tied with Marks at 1-1 when he was caught on his back and pinned for the first time in his career.
That fourth loss, though, ate away at Barnes. He was never in it. Buddock hit a big move early for five points, and as Barnes tried to climb back in the match he ended up just falling further and further behind before eventually losing, 15-4.
Although he didn't wrestle to anywhere near his capabilities, he was more disappointed in how he acted. The match got chippy at times and he didn't like how he responded.
"I embarrassed myself," Barnes said. "I was so disrespectful to the people who came out to watch us. I even disrespected their fans. I made a fool of myself."
Chalk it up as a learning experience. When he was beaten by Marks two weeks ago in the District 4 semifinals, he calmly shook the freshman's hand and jogged out of Williamsport's gymnasium. The same thing happened again after the loss to Preisch.
As angry as he may have been for not getting an opportunity to defend the district and regional titles he won a year ago, he never let it show.
"(After the Buddock match) I went back and apologized to my team. I said if I'm going to be a leader, that's no way to act on the mat," Barnes said. "It humbled me. It made me get a perspective that everyone loses and you can't do that kind of stuff."
The losses have been a rarity in the last two years for Barnes. He has just five in the last two years alone. And since losing 11 times as a freshman, he's lost just 10 times since.
On the flip side, he's also won 126 times in his career, more than any wrestler who has ever wore a Hughesville singlet including Spartans head coach Steve Budman, a 1989 state champion who previously held the school's win record along with Jason Smith with 116.
What concerned Barnes about his losses in recent weeks is he's not wrestling like the athlete who dominated opponents a year ago. The mat specialist who had worked so hard on improving his wrestling on his feet is struggling to get his shot when he needs it now.
"I'm back to square one with not being able to take shots like I talked about all my junior and sophomore year," Barnes said. "I didn't open up and I didn't do anything. I wrestled more aggressive (in the consolation matches) because I was more mad."
Barnes received a favorable draw in the state tournament as one of just two returning state placewinners on his side of the bracket, along with Northern Lehigh's Ty Herzog, a wrestler he beat, 3-2, last year in the state quarterfinals.
He's also familiar with his first-round opponent, Coudersport's Kyle Bova. They wrestled each other in offseason MAWA tournaments a year ago with each winning once in rideout.
Barnes is well aware though, that no matter who is on his side of the bracket, or whoever makes up his next opponent, he's not going to have an easy ride. But that's the fun in the sport for him. It's not just a sport to him, it is a lifestyle. One which he enjoys immensely and is still learning from day after day.