DENVER — From the moment Bob Thompson became the very first four-time state champion back in 1959, the bar was set in the world of Colorado prep wrestling.
Since that day, 20 more individuals have joined an ever-expanding club. While a four-time champion has been crowned at Pepsi Center in each of the five previous years, only twice — in 2004 and 2005 — have multiple wrestlers accomplished that feat in the same year.
On Saturday night, all of that could change.
A trio of three-time state champions will step onto the mat at Pepsi Center for the final time, looking to make history.
“Honestly, it’s just a mental game. Those kids have evolved so much to where it’s just a different world for them, man,” former Nucla four-time state champion Mikael Smith told CHSAANow.com earlier this month. “It’s bigger, faster, stronger. They have more advanced coaches. The techniques are different. I think they have to evolve on a different level than we did so many years ago.”
Smith won his fourth title in 2005, the same year as Crowley County’s Torben Walters. Two years later it was Limon’s Kevin LeValley accomplishing the feat, starting a run of eight four-time champions over 12 years.
When the finals get underway Saturday night, it will be Pueblo County’s Brendon Garcia (113 pounds in Class 4A), Greeley Central’s Andrew Alirez (152 pounds in 4A) and Ponderosa’s Cohlton Schultz (285 pounds in 5A) looking for their own four-peat.
“It’s a lot tougher to win now,” said Alamosa coach Gary Ramstetter, who has coached the Mean Moose for more than four decades and had his own four-time champion in Jon Archuleta back in 1995. “There’s some really good wrestlers out there.”
That was reinforced just moments before as Ramstetter and a packed house watched as Pomona’s Theorius Robison had his four-time bid denied in the 5A 145-pound semifinals. Robison was pinned by Regis Jesuit’s Antonio Segura in overtime with three seconds remaining on the clock.
Both wrestlers earned an escape during the match, and neither picked up a point during the first minute of overtime. Segura was able to put Robison on his back in the first 30-second period and the crowd erupted after the referee slapped his hand on the mat.
“I wanted it there (in overtime). I either wanted to win by points and not let him score, or at the end of overtime,” Segura said. “I wasn’t expecting to get the pin, but I felt it and knew I had to get it. I heard the time and I had to get the pin now or he could come back. He’s done it before.”
The match served as a reminder that anything can happen at state, and countered the argument that has arisen at times in recent years that it isn’t as difficult to win four titles in the current day and age.
Colorado prep wrestling icon Bob Smith – who will be inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in April – can speak to that.
Smith coached at Wray for 33 years and has attended every state tournament since 1952, when he was a wrestler himself. Smith’s teams won 10 championships, and he had 139 individuals place at state, but only one wrestler – Dusty Fix in 1988 – was a four-time champion.
Derek Fix, Dusty’s brother, was a three-time champion and only had one loss in his career – and it came at state.
“There’s a lot of pressure each time,” Smith said. “But as you start building to get three and then four … the pressure is there, but they have to come through it.”
Ramstetter had six three-time champions, but only Archuleta captured a fourth.
“You have to get it when you’re a freshman,” Ramstetter said. “That’s the difficult part.”
Smith said the trend of repeat champions has become more prevalent as wrestlers focus on the sport during the summer and compete in elite national tournaments.
“I think because of the activity of the sport and the exposure of the sport, kids can go anywhere anymore and wrestle,” he said. “They’re hunting tough tournaments to go to.”
Three juniors – Windsor’s Dominick Serrano and Isaiah Salazar, along with Pueblo East’s Andy Garcia – reached Saturday’s championship round and will be searching for a third title. With a victory, they could look to join the four-time club in 2020.
“The big thing for me was that it was just mind over matter. It’s individualized,” Mikael Smith said. “If you get yourself all wound up, then of course you’re going to exhaust yourself mentally and you’re just not going to get there.”