Two years ago, Pomona, Pueblo County and Meeker saw its bid for a state wrestling championship come up a little bit short.
But when those teams returned to the Pepsi Center last February, each squad turned that disappointment into motivation and claimed the top spot in its respective classification.
Don’t think that went unnoticed by the rest of the state. So for those squads whose state dreams didn’t quit pan out in 2016 – especially for the programs which have been there before – the message was sent that with a little extra effort and the right circumstances, their time could be coming.
“At the state tournament, crazy things happen. It happens every single year,” said Ponderosa coach Corey McNellis, whose team finished third in Class 5A. “I think it boils down to obviously getting enough qualifiers through at regionals, but at the state tournament it’s about which team has the better tournament.
“I think if we continually improve all season long, maybe get a couple of guys into state that through the rankings or on paper weren’t supposed to, and then have everyone peaking at the right time – if we can do that again this year, I like our chances.”
Ponderosa won eight consecutive 5A titles from 2003-10, and while the program has continued to be a power, the state title has eluded the Mustangs in recent seasons. The same could be said for Pine Creek, which won the 5A crown in 2012. The Eagles have finished in the top six in each of the past four seasons, but couldn’t quite put it all together.
For both programs, the challenge is to change all that in 2017.
“That is always the goal. I know everybody on the team would be so excited if we’re able to win that,” said Pine Creek junior Garrett Niel, who captured the 182-pound title last season. “It would be great to bring that title back to Pine Creek High School.”
Both Ponderosa and Pine Creek will get that opportunity this winter, along with a host of other programs. The Mustangs return five state placers, including sophomore Cohl Schultz, who dominated the state scene as a freshman at 220 pounds.
Pine Creek, which dropped down to 4A for 2016-17, returns two state champions in Niel and Peter Isais – a third, Jordan Martinez, opted to train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
The mission is there, but it won’t be an easy one. Of the eight state placers for Pomona, only one graduated. Pueblo County had only one senior among 10 state placers and returns four defending state champions – including three-time titlist Hunter Willits.
That should make for an exciting time at the Pepsi Center this February. In fact, only four state champions in 5A and five champions in 4A were seniors.
“Colorado in general has become a dominant state in wrestling. You look at Pueblo County and Pomona, they’re both ranked in the top 25 in the country,” McNellis said. “Colorado has become one of the elite wrestling states.
“You have these younger kids that experience the state tournament, whether it’s us, or Pomona or Poudre or Pine Creek – bringing those kids back, I think gives a huge advantage to all the teams returning those kids.”
While Pomona is the team to beat in 5A, Ponderosa isn’t about to back down. McNellis said there is no experience or pressure that can match that of the state tournament, so for his returning qualifiers, having been there before will be big for their confidence.
That’s especially true of Schultz. As a freshman he finished 51-1 – the only loss came in the Ironman tournament in Ohio – and pinned each of his four state opponents in the first period. Schultz is currently ranked No. 2 in the nation at 220 pounds, and McNellis said he’s only gotten better.
“He’s really been working on his offensive shots. He has improved,” the coach said. “He’s a great leader too. He’s about the team in pretty much all aspects.”
The pieces are in place for the future as well. Of the five returning state placers, only Hunter Matney is a senior.
Pine Creek is in a bit of a different situation. With Martinez choosing not to return, the Eagles only have three state qualifiers back. But with two of those three having won state championships, the experience factor can’t be overstated.
Niel has verbally committed to the Air Force Academy. Isais is still playing football but will join his teammates after the season.
“Those two are really the leaders, and they’re surrounded by four or five other seniors and juniors, all of whom are on the same page,” Pine Creek coach Billy Gabel said. “It’s hard for a coach to have that kind of room every single year.
“This year, so far from just what I’ve seen, these kids are having fun and enjoying each other and really buying into the family.”
Niel said the team was proud of having three state champions last season, but the Eagles weren’t satisfied because they still believed they could have performed better.
He’s ready to embrace the challenge of defending his title and helping lead the team in its bid for a championship.
“Being able to do it again would be great, and I know Pete’s thinking the same thing,” Niel said. “But at the same time we’re both thinking ‘let’s take it one dual at a time, one match at a time, so we don’t have all the pressure of thinking of a repeat again.”
Gabel said he enjoys seasons like the one before him because as a coach he doesn’t truly know what he has yet. One thing he does know is that moving down to 4A won’t be a drop-off in competition.
“Eddie (Soto) has done such a good job (at Pueblo County). I really respect him and what he’s built. (Pueblo) East looks tough and Cheyenne Mountain,” Gabel said. “But it doesn’t change what I do with my program. We still do ABC, XYZ and still train and compete the same way.”
In 3A, Valley has won three consecutive state championships. While two of the team’s three state champions graduated, Aaron Trujillo was only a junior.
In 2A, Meeker also graduated two of its three titlists, including four-time state champion T.J. Shelton. Casey Turner was a junior for the Cowboys last season.
- Season begins: Nov. 30
- Postseason begins: Feb. 10
- State tournament: Feb. 16-18, Pepsi Center in Denver
- Defending champion: Pomona
- Returning all-state wrestlers: Gabriel Dinette, Jr., Lakewood; Jacob Greenwood, Jr., Poudre; Malik Heinselman, Jr., Castle View; Josiah Rider, Jr., Grand Junction; Theorius Robison, Soph., Pomona; Trenton Schultz, Sr., Mountain Vista; Cohl Schultz, Soph., Ponderosa.
- Defending champion: Pueblo County
- Returning all-state wrestlers: Andrew Alirez, Soph., Greeley Central; Deric Cruz, Sr., Mesa Ridge; Justin Davis, Sr., Pueblo County; Dante Garcia, Jr., Pueblo County; Peter Isais, Sr., Pine Creek; Garrett Niel, Jr., Pine Creek; Jace Trujillo, Soph., Pueblo East; Will Vombaur, Soph., Windsor; Grant Willits, Sr., Pueblo County; Hunter Willits, Sr., Pueblo County; Myles Wilson, Sr., Glenwood Springs.
- Defending champion: Valley
- Returning all-state wrestlers: Ricky Ayala, Sr., Sheridan; Kyle Cisneros, Sr., Jefferson; Isaiah DeLaCerda, Sr., Alamosa; Sam deSeriere, Sr., Mullen; Brendon Garcia, Soph., Dolores Huerta; Jody Sandoval II, Sr., Fort Lupton; Aaron Trujillo, Sr., Valley.
- Defending champion: Meeker
- Returning all-state wrestlers: Keith Dunagan, Sr., Crowley County; Britton Holmes, Sr., Peyton; Quinton Montague, Sr., Centauri; Jacob Rodriguez, Sr., Rocky Ford; Casey Turner, Sr., Meeker.