DENVER – This was a performance for the ages by Pueblo County High School wrestling team.
The Hornets, who clinched the Class 4A state championship Friday night, kept the highlight reel rolling Saturday at the Pepsi Center.
Pueblo County won four individual state gold medals out of eight opportunities, and scored 225 points – which is believed to be the most in the history of any Class 4A state championship wrestling team.
“This means a lot for our school, our community and our kids,” said Pueblo County coach Eddie Soto, who has been the boss of the Hornet program since 2010. “This was the culmination of all the work everybody has put into our program.”
This was the Hornets second-consecutive state title and they easily defeated runner-up Greeley Central (123.5 points). Wiggins holds the highest point total record of 232 points when it captured 2A state glory in 1999.
“That 232-point record was pretty remarkable and we knew it was going to be tough to beat that total, especially in 4A,” said Soto, who was chosen the Class 4A coach of the year.
The Hornets’ gold medalists were Brendon Garcia (106 pounds), twins, Grant Willits (132), and Hunter Willits (152), and Donavon Rincon (195). Hunter Willits became the 20th four-time champion.
Pueblo County entered the finals with 205 points – 1.5 points more than it scored when it won state a year ago.
“Other coaches told me you got the first one and the hard one is the second one,” Soto said. “But, with this group of guys, it seemed like it was inevitable. They all do the right things and when the guys do the right things, good things happen. We had some close matches tonight we would have liked to win, but this was just awesome.”
The Hornets also had Josiah Nava (113 pounds), Nathan Bonham (120), Justin Davis (138) and Dante Garcia (182) each take second place.
Of Pueblo County’s eight state finalists – The Willits, Davis and Rincon are seniors.
Pueblo County took 11 wrestlers to the state tourney out of 14 weights and 10 of them placed.
“This is just awesome and amazing to be a part of this program,” said Brendon Garcia, who beat Discovery Canyon’s Patrick Allis in the finals.
Garcia, a sophomore, has now won back-to-back state titles. He captured the 106-pound crown last year while competing in the Class 3A ranks for Dolores Huerta.
The Hornet wrestling team has now delivered the only boys state crowns to Pueblo County High School, which opened its doors in 1953.
This is the sixth wrestling team state championship in Pueblo history. The others are Pueblo South (1997, 2004 and 2005, all in 4A) and Pueblo Central (1993, 5A).
The Hornets point total wasn’t the only Pueblo history they made. Hunter Willits became the first Steel City wrestler to win four state wrestling titles in a row, and he and his brother, Grant are only three-time wrestling state champs in the Pueblo record books. The Willits brothers are going to wrestle at Oregon State next year. Hunter was named Class 4A Outstanding Wrestler.
Grant snared an 8-0 major decision over Cheyenne Mountain’s Mike McFadden in the finals.
“I’m happy with three titles baby,” Grant said. “Nothing is better than this moment.”
In 2015, Grant, who was competing at 113 pounds was on the cusp of making Pueblo prep history. Grant and Hunter were trying to become the first wrestlers in Pueblo prep history to win back-to-back state championships in their freshman and sophomore seasons.
As freshmen, Grant won 4A state at 106 pounds and Hunter was tops at 132 pounds, and they also became the only twins from Pueblo to win state.
That back-to-back Willits plan, however was derailed in unexpected fashion.
The morning of Feb. 20, 2015 at the Class 4A state tourney, Grant failed to make weight and was disqualified for the final two days of the tournament.
Grant, with a 3-pound weight allowance, could weigh up to 116 pounds and he weighed in at 116.1 pounds on four different scales at the Pepsi Center.
“That fourth title is hitting me hard right now,” Grant said. “I would give anything to go back and weigh in again. I know my brother really wanted to win four state titles with me, but things happen. We got our second team title in a row and nothing can take this moment away.”
Rick Willits, the twins’ father and assistant coach for the Hornets, won a Class AAA state championship at 132 pounds in 1980 while competing for Pueblo East. The elder Willits then went on to win an NAIA national championship at 150 pounds at Adams State College in 1985.
The most intriguing finals match was Davis against Windsor’s Chris Sandoval, who three-time state finalist for Pueblo County and a state champ as a sophomore. Sandoval was able to get the best of Davis in the finals, winning 8-5.
Tension spilled over after the match, and the bad blood could be detected in Sandoval’s post-match interview.
“They didn’t leave me on the best of terms,” Sandoval said about his exit from the school. “I’m kind of glad this happened because this Windsor team is the best thing that has happened to me in a long time.”
Dominik Serrano’s wrestling career couldn’t have started better.
The Windsor freshman capped his season with a state championship at 120 pounds over Pueblo County’s Nathan Bonham (2-0). Serrano finished the season with a 50-0 record.
“This is the best feeling in the world, coming from middle school to this,” Serrano said.
Niwot breaks title drought
The last time Niwot High School won an individual wrestling gold medal was 1993.
Senior Tommy Stager changed that narrative Saturday night.
Stager claimed a 14-4 major decision over Mesa Ridge’s Elijah Valdez in the 145-pound finals.
“I’m very excited about this,” Stager said. “I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t have some butterflies, and everything worked out for me.”
Niwot coach Bobby Matthews had nothing but praise for Stager, who is going to attend the Air Force Academy next year.
“He didn’t change,” Matthews said. “That’s who he has been all year and I’m so happy for a kid who works that hard. I can’t be more proud of a kid like that.”
Wilson ends in glory
On Saturday night, Glenwood Springs wrestler Myles Wilson did what he has been doing the past two years – win.
Wilson, a senior, scored a 10-0 win over Pueblo County’s Dante Garcia. This was Wilson’s second state title in a row – he won at 170 pounds as a junior – and his record the last two seasons was 99-0. His sophomore year, Wilson posted a 45-1 record and he took second at state at 152 pounds and as a freshman he had a 45-4 mark and placed fifth at 138 pounds.
Over his career, he owns 189 victories, a state record. His 51 this season tied the state record.
“This feels great to get this second one done and especially to be undefeated for two years,” Wilson said. “I had never wrestled him (Garcia) before and my plan was to score as many points as I could and I kept attacking.”
Following his victory, Wilson ran along the side of the mat and did two backflips.
“I kind of thought about doing that and in the moment I just did it,” he said.
Wilson is going on to wrestle and the University of Iowa next year.
Another freshman winner for Pueblo East
From 1959-2015, Pueblo East High School’s wrestling program never had a freshman win a state title.
The Eagles have now had two in the last two years.
Heavyweight Andy Garcia collected his championship Saturday with a 9-5 win over Sand Creek junior Alefosio Saipaia. Jace Trujillo made history at Pueblo East in 2016 when he became the school’s first freshman state winner when he took the title at 113 pounds.