Wrestling: Cougars on Pepsi Center prowl

Cherokee Trail wrestlers gain five state spots in first year in 5A

The Aurora Sentinel

Published: Thursday, February 19, 2009 3:07 PM MST

 AURORA | Cherokee Trail wrestling coach Jeff Buck is trying to get his wrestlers to believe the Class 5A state tournament is just another 16-man tournament like the ones they’ve wrestled all season.

It’s more significant than that for the Cougars, and Buck knows it.

In five previous years of varsity wrestling at the 4A level, Cherokee Trail’s biggest state contingent was two. The current group of Cougars blew that away this season, as five have qualified for this season’s 5A state tournament, which runs Thursday through Saturday at the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver.

First-round matches are scheduled to begin at 7:15 p.m.

“We’re very, very excited to get five kids to state for the first time in school history,” said Buck, who had a total of three wrestlers make state in his first two years combined.

“It’s pretty exciting for the whole program, and the kids are looking forward to putting it all together this weekend,” he added. “Hopefully they go out and wrestle as hard as they can. Good things happen from that.”

Buck knew he had a good, young group, and they proved him right during the regular season, where they lost just one dual match all year in the Centennial League, a barnsburner with seven-time league champion Grandview.

The Cougars went on to place eight wrestlers and take fifth as a team at the 5A Region 4 tournament Feb. 13-14 at Central of Grand Junction, coming away with their bumper crop of five qualifiers in the process.

Sophomore 103-pounder Chris Buccieri and junior 152-pounder Ethan Hales made the regional finals of their respective weight classes, with Hales coming away with the program’s first-ever regional championship.

He pinned Northglenn’s Derek Stearns in the regional final to add another highlight to a Cherokee Trail season that has had plenty.

“I think we’ve been building up for the last couple of years, but we just weren’t ready until this season,” said Hales (28-7), who drew Gateway senior Justin Freeman (30-7) in an all-Aurora first round match.

“We did really well in the Centennial League, and I think that proved to a lot of us that we could go somewhere and make state.”

Four of the Cougars went the conventional way in qualifying.

Buccieri lost his final to Central of Grand Junction star Matthew Gurule, but was already assured a state trip, while 125-pounder Collin Gorham and 215-pounder Ben Jordan (whose brothers Kimball and Daniel represented Cherokee Trail at state in previous years) also were safe despite losing in third-place matches.

Junior 160-pounder Greg Conrardy was a different story. Thanks to another Aurora wrestler — Rangeview junior Hunter McGuinnis — Conrardy got a chance at a wrestleback after responding from a loss in the semifinals to take fifth.

Conrardy made the most of his chance, defeating Denver South’s Andom Weldehiwet 9-2 to join the state-bound group to the delight of his training partner Hales.

“Greg was really excited to make it through the wrestleback and I think he could do something at state,” Hales said.

Buck doesn’t have huge expectations for his group in terms of wins, but has seen them go toe-to-toe with quality opponents all season and thinks anything’s possible.

Best of all for Cherokee Trail? All five qualifiers are underclassmen.

Notes: Grandview leads Aurora teams with six qualifiers, while Cherokee Trail and Regis have five each, followed by Eaglecrest and Gateway with four each, Aurora Central with three, Smoky Hill two and Overland and Rangeview one.