MONTROSE - It was a Saturday where hard work paid off.
Montezuma-Cortez High School wrestling coach Eric Smith has seen many faces come and go during his five years at the helm. Including this year.
For the Panthers that stuck it out this season in the physically grueling sport that is wrestling, they are indeed tasting the fruits of their labor.
A quintet of Panthers qualified for state in the 16-team 4A Western Regionals at Montrose High School.
Seniors Ryan Daves and Trenton Gustafson took care of business with regional titles at 138 and 182 pounds. A trio of sophomores in Levi Gross, Justice Ramos and Seager Oliver stamped their tickets to Denver for Thursday's state tourney.
"I was really pleased with the way those guys picked it up," said Smith, whose team finished ninth with 103.5 points. "It's not about us as a coaching staff. It's about the boys. We do everything we do for them to see them succeed. It makes us feel good about what we're doing."
Gross (22-9) and Ramos (19-15) are going to the Pepsi Center for the first time after placing second at 120 and 145. It is only Ramos' second year of competitive wrestling.
"I'm extremely happy about it," said Ramos about heading to state. "I've been struggling and now, I'm finally starting to win some. It's really rewarding. I'm hoping to place."
Ramos has made an incredible ascension in two years. He was a match away from a regional title. Ramos and Palisade's Trevor Garcia battled to a 3-3 tie after two periods and looked like the grapplers would go to overtime. With the wrestlers jockeying for position, it was the elder, more experienced Garcia that scored a takedown in the final 30 seconds to secure the regional title by a 5-3 decision.
Gross lost a tough 5-2 decision to Nick Wittrock of Summit.
Oliver fell to 160-pound champion Francisco Marquez of Thompson Valley. But the Panther clawed back to take third with a 7-0 decision over Falcon's Kyle Soulka. Oliver (31-6) is happily returning back to state.
"Last year was a close one. I took fourth last year," said Oliver about the 2012 regionals. "This year, I took third. I'm happy. This is the toughest region for my weight. The top four ranked (4A) guys are here, including me. It's tough."
Daves did the expected and went 3-0 to remain unbeaten at 35-0. He pinned Durango's Morgan Walts at the 1 minute, 41 second mark. Daves secured a 12-0 decision over Thompson Valley's Parker Simington to setup a finals showdown with Montrose's Matt Sandoval.
With the crowd against him, Daves controlled the match with a barrage of takedowns and near fall points to lead 10-2 after two. Daves got the pin in the third period to win another regional championship.
"I'm excited. It's my last year to do it and I'm going to give it everything I have," said Daves about winning a state championship.
Gustafson was a heavy favorite at 182s. He had to wrestle the other heavy favorite in the finals.
This heavyweight fight went to the kid from Cortez.
Eagle Valley's Ty LaFramboise dealt the first big blow with two takedowns. Gustafson scored a momentum swinging escape before the end of the first and trailed just 4-1.
In the second, it was all Gustafson.
Another escape and three more takedowns, and Gustafson assumed command over the larger LaFramboise with an 8-4 lead. A final takedown in the third gave the better conditioned Gustafson a 10-4 decision. But it certainly wasn't easy.
Now sitting at 33-3, Gustafson will be a force to be reckoned with at state.
"I expect to do good this year," he said. "My conditioning is good. We work really hard and hopefully, the hard work pays off in the end. All the blood, sweat and tears put into this, I hope to come out (on top) in the end."
Thompson Valley, a Loveland school, handily won the regional team title with 231 points. Pueblo Centennial placed second with 176.
The Colorado High School Activities Association 4A State Championships begin Thursday with preliminaries at 7:15 p.m. in Denver at the Pepsi Center.
See Thursday's Journal for more.