DENVER — It’s hard to say which member of the Willits family was wearing the biggest smile Saturday night.
There was Hunter, raising his arms while taking in a standing ovation from the fans throughout the Pepsi Center after becoming the 20th individual to capture four state wrestling championships.
There was Hunter’s twin brother, Grant, who proudly embraced his brother just moments after capturing a third state championship of his own.
But it was Pueblo County assistant coach and thrilled father Rick Willits who may have been beaming the brightest – and breathing the biggest sigh of relief.
“Coaching your own kids or being a part of your own kids in this process is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “When it comes to their senior year you just want the best thing to happen as far as the result at the end.
“There is never a guarantee in any sport. ... I’m just thankful that they rose up and wrestled well and got those last titles.”
Hunter’s victory by a 13-0 major decision at 152 pounds over Longmont’s Nathan Morris capped an incredible career for the Hornets standout. He finishes with an overall mark of 167-7 and the four championships, going 16-0 at Pepsi Center.
Seven of those state victories came by technical fall and five more were major decisions, including the triumph Saturday night.
“It feels like a lot of hard work that in the end has finally paid off,” Hunter said. “Considering all the time and practices and things on my own that I had to do to get here, it feels awesome that I finally did it.”
It was just icing on the cake that Grant secured another state championship and that Pueblo County defended its 4A team championship with 225 points.
Hunter admitted to being humbled after the crowd rose to its feet and gave him a resounding ovation that continued to grow.
“The crowd up there was just amazing,” Hunter said. “To hear a crowd like that after a win is one of the best things I’ve ever had in my entire life.”
The moment marked the fourth year in a row that someone accomplished the feat. Willits is the first wrestler from Pueblo to join the club, and while it may seem like there has been a run recently, it certainly doesn’t diminish what it takes to join the elite group.
Mikael Smith returned to Pepsi Center this weekend as an official. Back in 2005, he became the 12th individual to win four state championships while at Nucla from 2002-05.
“You only get one chance, one time,” Smith said. “It’s a done deal – you don’t get to go back and try it over. You collect that loss here and it’s a lost title.
“I think it’s an exclusive group, but the invitation’s always open.”
Hunter admitted it was an emotional moment for him, but it was made more so by the fact that Grant missed out on joining him after barely missing weight at state as a sophomore.
It was perhaps even more emotional for Rick, both as a coach and a father.
“I think right after he won it hit him and it hit me,” Rick said of Grant. “He looked at me and I looked at him and we both broke a little bit because we knew it was there. But again in this sport, it can humble you the next day and it can make you proud the next day. It’s a sport that’s a teeter-totter.
“The missed weight was a super unfortunate event, but I think in the whole scope of things it made him a better man and it made him a better wrestler, in an unfortunate way.”
Hunter and Grant are headed to Corvallis in the fall to wrestle for Oregon State University. While the brothers had the opportunity to go their separate ways, the bond between them was tight enough that separation wasn’t an option.
“For me, just to have an opportunity for all the hard work, dedication, all the things they’ve done – it paid off to get them that scholarship to go to college and wrestle,” Rick said. “I’m really blessed they’re able to do that. There were so many good colleges out there. … I’m thankful we got picked up by a great school that we can go and represent on the next level.”