When the lights come on at the Pepsi Center for the Class 5A state wrestling tournament, Ryan Budd expects his Grandview wrestlers to be right at home.
While there may be some Wolves who will experience the state tournament for the first time — depending on who comes through regional qualifying Feb. 15-16 — Budd has a veteran group that has just finished a gauntlet of a regular season.
Grandview has not only weathered a schedule it believes is the toughest in the state, but shown enough that it is thought of in the conversation to hoist one of the two team trophies.
“We looked at it and this season we faced 11 of the top 20 teams in the country, in 4A we faced eight of the top 10 teams, we faced all of the top 10 in 5A and in 3A like 1-4, so it’s been brutal,” Budd said. “That doesn’t even count some of the out of state competition we saw. I think the biggest difference is we’ve been able to win more close matches that we might have lost in years past.
“I think we’re just more battle tested.”
Throughout a rich wrestling history that began under original coach Greg Maestas — for whom Budd wrestled — Grandview has never had a team so full of experience or regarded as a potential top-two finisher.
The Wolves’ all-time high finish is third which came back in 2008 when they had three finalists, two state champions, a runner up and a sixth-place finisher.
Grandview finished sixth in the 5A standings last season with 98 points and return four of the of the five placers from that team in seniors Fabian Santillan (state champion) and Dylan Ranieri (fifth place) and juniors Alex Santillan (third place) and Joe Renner (fourth place).
None of those four have slipped and in fact all of them are ranked in the top three at their respective weights by On The Mat: Alex Santillan (No. 3 at 126 pounds), Fabian Santillan (No. 1 at 138 pounds), Ranieri (No. 2 at 152 pounds) and Renner (No. 3 at 195 pounds).
Barring injury or unexpected early matchups, all four of those wrestlers should at least have a fighting chance to make a state final. That will definitely help the Wolves get a big boost in the team standings.
“We’re going to put on a show at state; I’m super excited about that,” said Fabian Santillan, who has taken his wrestling to even another level after winning last season’s state crown.
Ranieri has been ranked as high as No. 1 in his position and feels like he could win a state title in his final shot, while both Alex Santillan and Renner know how to win tough matches deep in tournaments. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that this Grandview team surpasses the 2008 one with more than three finalists.
In addition, seniors Matthew Frye (No. 9 at 145) and Bryce Hartzheim (No. 6 at 170) both are returning state qualifiers who each won a match at Pepsi Center last season, while junior up-and-comer Jack Oh (No. 9 at 132) has been ranked in the top 10 all season, as has 220-pound freshman Angelo Falise. Sophomore Frankie Sanchez is also ranked at 106 pounds (No. 10).
All of them have come through the fires of a schedule that has included the team’s annual trip to the Reno Tournament of Champions, the Doc Buchanan Invitational in California, plus rugged Colorado tournaments at Arvada West and Centaurus (Top of the Rockies) among others.
“We hold it up proudly that we probably wrestled the toughest schedule of anybody in Colorado,” Ranieri said. “There are a lot of kids with better records than we have, but we know the work we’ve put in and the quality of kids that we’ve wrestled this season.”
That toughness should come in handy at the state tournament, where bouncing back from tough losses and scoring a lot of points in the consolation part of the bracket is key to team success.
Budd believes the leadership of Ranieri and Fabian Santillan has also been a boost to the development of the younger wrestlers and he’s looking forward to seeing how the end of the season plays out, especially as the team has expectations it hasn’t had before.
Things have to go right for sure, but they could go very right this time for Grandview.
“We definitely have kids that can score points at the state tournament, but you can’t take anything for granted or be cocky about it,” Budd said. “I think we’ve wrestled a hard enough schedule that when we get there, nothing will phase us.”