DENVER -- Paonia is a tiny town in the far west region of Colorado. It's four hours from Denver and has less than 2,000 people in it. Many people in Colorado may not have even heard of Paonia, but it is home to a great wrestling community and a dominant 2A program.
The Paonia Eagles are the two-time defending state champions and all but sealed up their third consecutive crown Friday at the Pepsi Center.
Paonia has already accumulated an impressive 144 points, well clear of second place Meeker (92.5) headed into Saturday’s championship matches.
“It was a good day,” Paonia’s coach Andy Pipher said after the semis. “We had seven in the quarters. We lost one right in the final seconds at 120 with Josh Altman (in the semifinals). He wrestled hard and did the gameplan for five minutes and fifty nine seconds, but at the last second relaxed a little bit and got taken down and lost by one.
“We punched five others in that wrestled really hard and stuck to the gameplan and found a way to win.”
When asked what’s made his program so successful, Pipher said, “Really good community support. We’ve got community support for all these kids and they help us out with our summer program.”
“We run our summer duals up there June 14th and 15th,” Pipher said. “This year we get 400 kids in there to wrestle and counting. We get everybody from Arvada West to Rocky Mountain High School, from the east to the north to the south, all four corners, and it’s a big event. About seven states are represented there, they come through Nebraska.”
“All those things help,” said the long-time Paonia Coach. “There’s probably more matches wrestled in the county high school gym than any high school gym in the state of Colorado during one calendar year. That’s where the success comes from.”
Paonia started the semifinal round with Altman’s last second loss to Highland’s Jakeob Trujillo 4-3. Trujillo, a sophomore, will face Baca County’s senior Stetson Loader in the finals tomorrow.
After Altman’s loss, Paonia’s machine got chugging again with five out of six semifinal wins the rest of the night. Jesse Reed, a two-time defending champ as a junior, advanced at 126 to face Swink’s junior of their own, Austin Coy. Both wrestlers will enter the title match undefeated on the season.
Pipher had nothing but praise for his most touted wrestler.
“Jesse’s a great wrestler,” Pipher said. “He works hard, just a quiet leader, but he goes in there and stays after practice every day and does extra and works and puts a lot of time in during the summer and its paying off.”
Bo Pipher won his semifinal match for Paonia at 132, Ty Coats advanced at 152, Zach Milner at 160, and Tony Darling at 285. Logan Schopp, a junior, lost to Lyons’ sophomore Jon Hickman by fall in four minutes, 33 seconds.
Paonia had five of their seven semifinalists advance. Mathematically, the crown isn’t yet Paonia’s, but it would take a lot tomorrow for them to not win it.
Baca County’s Johnny Loflin, a 195-pounder, had a great day of his own.
Loflin’s defeated all three of his opponents thus far via pin. His longest match was in the semifinals against Sedgwick County’s Jimmy Horalek, but the match was still a mere one minute and ten seconds. Loflin will face Rocky Ford’s Nate Finnell, a winner over Soroco’s Cody Constine in the semis, tomorrow in the state title match.
Loflin is seeking his second consecutive title.
“I have a lot of experience,” he said. “I’ve been here all four years. I’ve placed fifth, second, and first, so I’ve just had a lot of experience. I feel confident. Wrestling is 90 percent mental and I think I have that part down pretty well.”
Lolflin has mixed feelings about his season up to this point, but is optimistic.
“It’s been good,” he said. “My team’s awesome. I love them this year. They’re a real hard working group of kids. I’m really pleased with the underclassmen that are coming in during the mornings and running extra, doing all that sort of stuff.
“My season’s personally been a little slow. It hasn’t been my best season, but I’m confident and I feel good."
Saturday, the Baca County senior will be attacking the last match of his high school career with fire.
“I’m going to be aggressive, just open up my offense, and just see what happens," Loflin said. "I just want to be aggressive and stay on him.
“Last year I was kind’ve trying to get something off my shoulders,” he added. “This year I’m kind’ve relaxed, a lot more relaxed, and just wrestling.”
Meeker’s T.J. Shelton joined Paonia’s Reed and Baca County’s Loflin as defending champs that advanced to Saturday’s finals. Shelton pinned his third opponent of the meet with a fall of Norwood’s Kolby Starks in 1:07. He will face Lyons’ Jon Hickman for all the marbles in the 170 pound weight class.
Three of the four returning champs moved on, but Sedgwick County’s Seth Harrington wasn’t one of them. Harrington, the winner at 132 last season, lost to Holly’s Ryan Nordyke in the 138 pound weight class, in a 9-5 decision in the semis. Harrington will wrestle the last meet of his high school career against Wray’s Alex Tarin for third place, while Nordyke will take on Center’s Jose Chavez for the crown.
Paonia stole the headlines Friday evening at the Pepsi Center though as they look to add to their four state wrestling titles in school history. All have been under coach Pipher during his 16 seasons at the helm.
Pipher reflected a little Friday on how this year’s team compares to his last two.
“The last two, I think we had probably more depth in each weight,” Pipher noted. “This year I think we have more, well we got five in the finals, so we have more top end kids.”
“Last year I think we won 13 matches on the first day,” Pipher added. “This year we only have 10 here, but they’re good quality kids. Not to take anything from last year’s, but it’s just a different team.”
Paonia may have a different team, but the Eagles look good enough to win yet another 2A wrestling title and add to their town’s pride.