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Derby's Tanner Smith, right, wrestles Garden City's Efrain Sanchez during a 106-pound semifinal at the Class 6A wrestling tournament Friday at Hartman Arena.

Derby's Tanner Smith, right, wrestles Garden City's Efrain Sanchez during a 106-pound semifinal at the Class 6A wrestling tournament Friday at Hartman Arena. Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Eagle | Buy this photo

Derby’s Tanner Smith powers into final

Published Feb. 28 at 11:18 p.m. | Last updated March 1 at 10:39 p.m.

A year ago, when he was being tossed around in the practice gym and beaten at the junior varsity level, Tanner Smith felt like the furthest thing from a champion. The only thing tinier than his 97-pound frame was Smith’s confidence level during his freshmen season at Derby.

But Smith persevered, and has gone from an undersized JV wrestler to one win away from being a state champion. His 10-1 decision over Garden City’s Efrain Sanchez in the semifinals of Class 6A’s 106-pound division vaulted him into Saturday’s final.

Smith will wrestle Junction City’s Gary Joint, 26-1 and ranked No. 1, in the championship match at Hartman Arena.

“Just don’t give up,” Smith said of what his story says. “If you’re underweight or you’re on JV, just stick with it and you’ll come out a better wrestler in the end.”

Before Smith could succeed at the state level, he had to learn from losing to teammate and state qualifier Braden Dipman in practice. In terms of technicality, Smith could hang with him. But giving up nearly 10 pounds put him at a severe disadvantage.

Dipman, who has wrestled against Smith since they were kids, said that the weight was the only aspect holding Smith back last season.

“He was just way too small for the 106 spot,” Dipman said. “He’s definitely very talented and he had a lot of skill, so I knew this year he’s be big enough and he’s just been awesome.”

But losing to Dipman in practice on a near daily basis affected Smith’s mental state, shrouding his confidence when he wrestled outside of the practice gym.

It even crept into this season, when Smith won the 106 spot in Derby’s lineup. After 24 matches, Smith had struggled his way to a 12-12 record.

“I was so used to losing,” Smith said. “I didn’t know what to do.”

The breakthrough came when Smith defeated his first ranked opponent midway through the season. Once he proved to himself he could wrestle with the best in the state, his confidence returned and he transformed back into the great wrestler he was growing up.

The added weight has helped — Smith actually has to cut to make his weight class — but winning again is what set Smith off on a tear that will culminate in the state title match.

“He’s just been evolving,” Derby coach Bill Ross said. “I think it was just finding that little bit of confidence and realizing he can go with these guys and he can be a force to be reckoned with in the state.”

On Friday, Smith showed the power of what confidence can do for him.

After pinning his opponent to advance out of the first round, Smith defeated Olathe Northwest’s Will Whitaker, a ranked opponent, to set up a semifinal showdown with Sanchez, who entered ranked No. 2.

Smith brimmed with confidence, piecing together his finest performance of the season in a 10-1 dismantling of Sanchez.

“It feels amazing to be here,” Smith said. “I never would have thought last year that I would be in the state championship match.”

Smith’s teammates were aware of his skill, but that didn’t keep many from being in awe of his success.

It was teammate Garrett Xanders, who also made the finals, who summarized Derby’s thoughts on the situation.

“It’s crazy to think a kid that wrestled JV last year is in the state finals now.”