Not quite four years ago, a group of freshmen walked into Pueblo County High School hoping to make their mark on a developing wrestling program.
On Thursday, that same group of Hornets – now seniors – will attempt to add the exclamation point to a legacy they have built in a program that is now one of the state’s elite.
Pueblo County is the favorite to defend its Class 4A state championship when the three-day state tournament gets going Thursday at Pepsi Center in Denver. The Hornets are sending 11 individuals to state, including four seniors who have been there since the beginning.
Each of them – from twin brothers Grant and Hunter Willits, to Justin Davis and Donovan Rincon – has played an important role in helping Pueblo County become a force to be reckoned with on a national level.
It started a few years before they arrived though, when a group of coaches helped develop a youth and middle-school program that was initially self-funded.
“With this senior group we have now, a lot of them came from the middle school program. They were city champs and eighth-grade champs,” said Hornets coach Eddie Soto, who took over the high school program in 2010. “It was good to develop a wrestling culture out here on the mesa. Before that there was no wrestling culture – it was all a football and basketball mentality.”
For more than a decade, Pueblo County boasted only one individual state champion – Bryce Sciumbato, a 125-pound titlist back in 2009. Over the past three years though, Pueblo County has claimed a total of nine individual titles and one team championship, the first for any boys program in the school’s history.
“They know each other so well that they’re riding this thing together. As coaches we’ve given them the opportunity,” Soto said. “They’re a great group of kids, and it’s an honor to be on the ride with them and an honor to be with them.”
Two of the catalysts of the current senior group are Grant and Hunter Willits, who have a combined five state titles between them. Grant, a two-time champion, is the top seed at 132 pounds headed into Thursday’s first round, and Hunter – who is attempting to become the state’s 20th four-time state champion – is the top seed at 152 pounds.
It was about a month ago at the Top of the Rockies tournament in Lafayette when the brothers talked about what it would take to finish their senior year off as champions.
“Obviously just getting our skills better, working hard every day, and going out with a bang with this group that we have,” said Grant, who along with Hunter set the all-time victory record for the city of Pueblo at the 4A Region 1 tournament last weekend, according to the Pueblo Chieftain.
“It’s going to be the last time I get to wrestle with all these guys. It’s going to be a good memory while it lasts.”
Hunter is chasing history in his bid to capture a fourth consecutive championship. The senior carries a 41-2 record into state – both losses came in the Walsh Jesuit Ironman tournament in Ohio – after winning at 132 as a freshman, 138 as a sophomore and 152 a year ago.
Hunter said he’s just staying focused and sticking to the tried and true cliché of taking it “one match at a time.”
“Everybody says ‘You’ve got to look at it as one match at a time’, and obviously everybody says it, so it’s got to be true,” Hunter said. “That’s what I do. You don’t want to get ahead of yourself. You never want to think you’ve got anything easy.
“I know what the tournament’s like; I know it’s tough, and I’ve seen crazy things happen every year, from my team alone.”
He would be the first individual from Pueblo to accomplish the feat.
“I love representing where I’m from,” Hunter said. “I love representing Colorado when I travel across the nation, and I love representing Pueblo when I’m in Colorado.”
Grant Willits won the 126-pound title last February and Davis took first at 132. Dante Garcia also captured a state championship as a sophomore at 182.
The team had two more finish second last season in Josiah Nava and Chris Sandoval, both of whom were state champions in 2015. Sandoval, who was also part of that incoming class of freshmen back in 2013, transferred to Windsor this season and is in the same bracket as Davis.
Mason Mooring is the only other senior remaining from four years ago.
Hunter Willits said much of the credit goes to the coaches, starting with the youth coaches in the Steel City program, where the group got its initial start. The goal now is for the program to defend its title and for the seniors to go out on top before handing over the reins.
“It is important to them because they put so much time in together,” Soto said. “They want to send us out on top together.”