Wrestling: Wrestlers finally make it to The Can

Pepsi Center trip a long time coming for several Aurora qualifiers

The Aurora Sentinel

Published: Thursday, February 19, 2009 3:20 PM MST

Every high school wrestler who takes the mat at the Pepsi Center for the state wrestling tournament feels a certain amount of pride for making it downtown.

Some, like Grandview senior Eric Wilson — who will compete in his fourth Class 5A state tournament Feb. 19-21 — qualify early in their careers and make going back a habit.

Others, like Eaglecrest’s Dan Moore, Gateway’s Brent Willis and six other seniors among Aurora’s 31 state qualifiers, it will be their first and last taste after falling short due to bad luck, injury or loaded regionals.

“I feel so good, it’s ridiculous; I’ve been dreaming about this day for the last four years, I promise you, so to see it actually happen is amazing,” said Willis, who finally reached the state tournament by making it to the 145-pound championship match the Region 3 tournament Feb. 14 at Legacy.

Willis and senior 160-pounder Renato Fierro join senior Justin Freeman (152 pounds) and junior LaDaris Mungin (130) as the Olys’ largest group of state qualifiers since 2000.

Mungin and Freeman both made it to the Pepsi Center last season, but Willis and Fierro get their first shots.

Fierro’s only wrestled for two years, so his wait has been short, while Willis suffered through three  disappointing roller-coaster seasons before finally punching his ticket to state.

Willis (28-3) clinched his spot with a particularly sweet 5-3 comeback win over Chaparral’s Tyler Stenger in the regional semifinals. The icing on the cake for Willis was that he got to pay Stenger back for dealing him his first loss of the year.

It didn’t happen without some adversity, however, as Willis had to battle back from a 3-0 deficit in the second period, the result of an illegal move that netted Stenger two penalty points. Willis got a takedown late in the period to make it 3-2, tied it with an escape point early in the third and got a takedown in the final 20 seconds.

“I thought to myself, ‘you have to come back from this, you can’t let it slip away now,’” Willis said. “Thankfully I took him down and I won.

“I called my mom, I called my girl and I called my grandma. Now I want state.”

Willis — who was pinned by Air Academy’s Taylor Hollister in the regional championship match — credited Mungin, Freeman and Fierro for helping him hone several aspects of his wrestling.

Three of Eaglecrest’s four state qualifiers — Moore at 130 pounds, 112-pounder Matt Ritz and 160-pounder Jordan Johnson — are first-time qualifiers as seniors.

Prior to his freshman year at Eaglecrest, Moore moved to Colorado from Pennsylvania, where the 100-win milestone is huge for a wrestler.

With a 31-second pin of Monarch’s Nick Vaughn in his first match at the Region 1 tournament at Eaglecrest, Moore reached triple digits in career victories, a testament to longevity and good fortune in avoiding major injury, but still hadn’t set foot on the Pepsi Center floor.

He fixed that after winning two more matches and making the regional championship match, where he was pinned by top-ranked Gavin Peters of Standley Lake.

Moore — who lost both his regional matches as a freshman, placed sixth as a sophomore and missed the podium last year — hasn’t exactly lost sleep over missing state, but is anxious now that his chance is here.

“I don’t think I would trade or change anything,” Moore said. “Maybe the state experience would have been better, but I’ve wrestled in big tournaments before.

“It’s awesome to make it to state, though, and make all the hard work finally worth it.”

Moore (31-8) doesn’t intend to go two and out at state and relishes his chance to take on higher-ranked wrestlers with more pressure on them.

He’s also looking forward to seeing what his teammates can do. Ritz and Johnson also overcame a lot to qualify and Moore is good friends with junior 145-pounder Gage Fell, who will also wrestle at the Pepsi Center for the first time.

“We’re a really close team and we’ve grown together this season through the pain and the suffering, and now the triumph,” Moore said. “We’ve put in the time, so hopefully we all do well.”

The list of senior first-timers also includes Aurora Central’s Jeff Ibanez (119 pounds), Grandview’s Enos Ozekin (189 pounds) and Smoky Hill’s Shawn Miller (160 pounds).

On the other end of the spectrum among seniors is Grandview’s Wilson, Aurora’s first four-time state qualifier since Regis’ Bryan Zerr (2002-05). Wilson placed third at 103 pounds as a sophomore, won the 112-pound state championship and has a legitimate chance at a 119-pound title this season. He is 40-4 and ranked second at his weight behind Northglenn’s Philip Grout, who he beat in last season’s 112-pound final.

“Eric is prepared and I think he is ready,” said Grandview coach Greg Maestas, who has had a pair of state champions in two of the last three 5A state tournaments.

“He’s done everything he can do and should do,” he added. “Hopefully he can make it back to the finals.”

Wilson headlines a group of six qualifiers for the Wolves — five who have already made at least one state appearance — who have led or tied for the most qualifiers among Aurora teams in every season since 2001.

Senior 135-pounder Josh Christopher is Overland’s only state qualifier, but he has a chance to make a run in his third trip to the Pepsi Center. Christopher, who placed sixth last season at 130 pounds, won the Region 1 championship.