DENVER – For the first time in a long time, T.J. Shelton was able to take a deep breath Saturday night and exhale all the pressure that had been building up for so long.
Shelton overcame the weight of expectations that comes with pursuing four consecutive state championships, and he did it with a little drama. The Meeker senior found himself trailing early in the Class 2A 170-pound title match at Pepsi Center, but turned it around with a pair of near falls to earn a 16-7 major decision over Centauri’s Chris Martin.
The victory placed Shelton in elite company as he became the 19th wrestler in state history to become a four-time champion.
“This one was above and beyond the other ones,” said Shelton, who finished the season with a 42-1 record. “I just think since there was so much at stake, I’m just so relieved. All the pressure is just relieved, so I think that was the big factor in how this one was so much different.”
After pinning his way through the first three rounds, Shelton faced some adversity against Martin. The Centauri senior, who had also pinned his way into the finals, scored two takedowns in the first period to take a 4-2 lead.
Shelton turned it around though, opening the second period with a reversal and a three-point near fall. Even after Martin added two points on a reversal, Shelton escaped and scored a takedown. He put it away with a dominant showing in the final period.
“The good thing about T.J. is he’s wrestled a lot of matches. He’s been down, and he’s lost matches,” Meeker coach J.C. Watt said. “He doesn’t get rattled when he gets down … he just wrestles the whole six minutes.”
The milestone was made that much sweeter by the fact that teammates Casey Turner and Devon Pontine also won state titles. The Cowboys also ended up with the team championship, edging Rocky Ford by one point.
Having to sit around while waiting for the last match of his prep career, Shelton said he spent the majority of Saturday cheering on his teammates.
“That was one of his goals, wanting to be a four-time state champion,” Watt said. “It’s been a long road, a really long road. I’m sure sitting around today was a little stressful on him, just waiting, waiting, waiting.
“He got down early, but he just showed his never-give-up attitude.”
It was Shelton’s third consecutive title at 170 pounds. He pinned Centennial’s Jose Cisneros a year ago and pinned Lyons’ Jon Hickman in 2014. As a freshman he posted an 8-2 decision over Del Norte’s Austin McDonald at 160 pounds.
Before the finals could get underway, a video was shown on the scoreboard at Pepsi Center after the Parade of Champions. Each of the previous 18 four-time state winners were shown, including Paonia’s Jesse Reed, who accomplished the feat last February.
“It was excitement knowing that I had the chance to be on there, and I was right there,” Shelton said of watching the presentation. “I was just so close to achieving that. I was one match away. It was unreal.”
When asked to reflect back on his first championship, Shelton – who will wrestle at Colorado School of Mines in Golden next fall – paused briefly before answering.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” he said. “It feels like ages, but then again, when you think of it, it feels like yesterday. I can remember every moment so vividly, it’s just amazing.”