12/13/2008 3:25:00 PM   

Winter Sports Preview: Eyes, expectations on city's wrestling champs

Grandview’s Wilson, Regis’ Washington seek second state mat titles

By Courtney Oakes
The Aurora Sentinel

The majority of Aurora’s most recent state wrestling champions have won their state titles as seniors and headed off into the sunset.

Grandview senior Eric Wilson and Regis sophomore Denzel Washington are the exceptions, as both enter the 2008-09 season with a chance to add another championship to their resumes.

Wilson pulled consecutive upsets  to win the Class 5A 112-pound crown in his third trip to the Pepsi Center, and Washington posted a workmanlike 152-pound victory in his state debut.

If either can make it back to the Pepsi Center for this season’s 5A state tournament Feb. 19-21, he could become Aurora’s first two-time champion since  Overland’s Dale King, who won at 152 pounds in 1994 and 160 pounds in 1996.

The city’s past four state winners — Grandview’s Jon Brascetta and Curtis McNary (2006), Regis’ John Hooper (2007) and Grandview’s Cody Gilmore (2008) — all won as seniors. The last Aurora non-senior to win a state title was Rangeview’s Roger Baker in 2002, but Baker transferred to 3A Buena Vista for his senior year.

The path to second titles is considerably tougher this season for both Wilson and Washington, who now have targets squarely on their backs.

Third in 5A as a sophomore at 103 pounds, Wilson benefitted from operating just outside the spotlight last season in his move to 112 pounds, as Rocky Mountain’s Jeremy Schmitt and Northglenn’s Philip Grout battled it out all season and were expected to meet in the final.

Wilson threw a wrench in the plans when he pinned Schmitt in the semifinals and beat Grout 2-0 in overtime.

All three are expected to be at 119 pounds this season, but Wilson enters the year No. 1 according to On the Mat’s preseason rankings, with the other two able to chase this time.

“Eric’s really focused; he knows he has the target on his back,” said Grandview coach Greg Maestas, whose coached four state winners in the past three seasons, yet is still seeking the first repeat champion in school history. “He’s been working to keep the distance between him, Grout and the young man from Rocky Mountain. The roles have changed.”

Wilson has something else to grapple with this season — choosing where he wants to wrestle next year. He’s visited Missouri and Maryland and is expected to join a growing list of Grandview wrestlers in Division I programs.

Regis’ Washington has a long time before he’ll have to make a college choice.

The lanky sophomore has other things to think about — like what he’ll need to do if he wants to join Colorado’s select group of four-time state champions.

That number stands at 15 with the addition last season of Loveland star Tyler Graff, who won his last title on the same night Washington got his first, pulling the rare feat of winning one of the upper weights as a freshman.

Washington’s repeat chances are bolstered by his propensity to be at his best when the most eyes are on him. He finished fourth at regionals, but in front of the Pepsi Center crowd he dazzled for four matches, including a 5-2 win over Ponderosa’s Stephone Kling in the final.

“Denzel’s a big-time wrestler, he likes the competition on the big stage as he showed last season,” new Regis coach Adam Reid said.

“I think he’s got the same expectations this year and he’s gunning for another state title. He just has a will to win that’s hard to beat. You can’t coach that.”

Washington will begin wrestling midseason.

Aurora’s chances for a podium presence at Pepsi Center don’t end with Wilson and Washington. A handful of experienced seniors could make make a move.

Overland 140-pounder Josh Christopher is the only returning placer after placing sixth at 135s last season and could make a big rise, while Washington’s Regis teammates Zach Atencio (140) and Powell Slinkard (145), Grandview’s Mike Balagna (125), Josh Starr (152) and Penn Wade (215), Gateway 145-pounder Justin Freeman and Aurora Central 112-pounder Phil Nguyen have the drive to make their last season’s count.