They may not have been the ones the had been hoping for, but Brandon Ward and Richard Martinez still had the grit to finish with medals at the Pepsi Center last weekend.
Martinez – a senior at Mancos –and Ward –a senior at Dolores – entered the Class 2A State Championships last week as On The Mat’s No. 1 and No. 2 projected finishers at 120 pounds.
Both cruised to the semifinals with two straight wins and appeared poised to meet in the state championship, but then Ward lost in a tough 3-2 decision to eventual state champion Wesley Vanmatre of John Mall and Martinez fell to eventual runner-up Brendyn Nordyke of Holly in a 15-6 major decision.
It was a heartbreaking loss for both of the area grapplers who had their eyes set on the championship – but they responded.
Ward has been right in the hunt for the last three years, dropping just three matches at state in three years, by a total of five points.
“He was always right there, so it’s a heartbreaker,” said Dolores head coach Dane Gallaher. “He lost by two his first year but then wrestled back for third and wrestled the maximum matches. And then last year he lost by two in the semifinals and this year lost by one in the semifinals.”
Ward was initially down after the loss, but he responded with vigor, pinning Gabe Ferguson of Paonia and then handling Sean Dale of Cedaredge with a 16-6 major decision win to take third.
“At first he was very upset, but I told him: ‘A lot of kids would like to come to state and you’re here for the third time in a row,’” said Gallaher. “And he came back and wrestled a really good match the next match, and then the following match for third place he really dominated and was ahead 10-2 early in the match and ended up finishing 16-6, so it was really good for him.”
Martinez, who had been ranked No. 1 for much of the season, was also upset after his semifinal loss. And although he dropped his next match to Dale, sending him to the fifth place match, he finished his high school career with a win by pinning Ferguson in the fifth place contest.
“That’s one of the toughest things at the state tournament,” said Mancos head coach Travis White. “Every kid has the idea that they’re going in there and they’re going to become state champion. And with that mindset, when you lose a match or two it becomes very difficult to respond. I’ve seen a lot of kids lose that semifinal match and they don’t win a match the rest of the tournament. But that wasn’t the case with Richard.”
“As far as developing as a person and not just as a wrestler, it’s how you respond that makes the difference – and Richard really dug deep,” he continued. “To finish your high school career with a win is a great feeling. So, I’m very proud of the kid and the way he battled back. And it’s not the place he wanted, but he was at least able to battle back and get on that podium.”
Junior Cameron Fury also represented the Blue Jays in Denver, wrestling at 170 pounds.
And although he got off to a bit of a slow start in a loss to Ryan Saine of Manzanola on Thursday, White said that he wrestled much better in his second match, although he was eliminated by Rhett Uhland of Eads in a 12-6 decision.
“His first match he was a little slow, but his second match he really got after it,” said White. “We fell behind a little bit and just couldn’t get him turned and get the points to come out with a win. But he really battled and he was in a very tough division.”
“We qualified two for state and we had two that were right there knocking on the door, so I would consider it a successful season,” White said. “And there’s only one way to go and it’s up. We’ve got a great group of younger kids coming in, our freshman this year showed that they’re ready to advance and we’ve got some eighth graders coming in. So, as far as the future goes, the future looks bright for us.”
Zander Eichner was the Bears’ other state qualifier, at 113 pounds. And although he lost to Alejandro Velasquez of Sierra Grande on Thursday and was eliminated on Friday by Cody Crum of Holly, Gallaher said his freshman came out and fought valiantly on the big stage.
“I was so impressed with him up there,” he said. “He went out and wrestled the No. 1 seed from another region and takes the kid down and puts him on his back first period and was working his butt off…Both matches were like that. He went out and wrestled hard and there was no timidness about him being at state or anything. He went out and threw down and tried to do everything he could to win the match.”
Gallaher said the Bears’ season had its ups and downs – with the team losing wrestlers to injuries and grades – but that he was proud of the way his team finished strong.
“It was tough keeping the numbers up,” he said. “But I felt like the kids who finished the season were really working hard and doing the right thing.”