Aurora winter sports teams finding success & benefits of travel trips

Seniors Max Gonzales, left, and Ezequiel Silva hope to become the first Class 5A state wrestling champions in Cherokee Trail program history this season. Coach Jeff Buck hopes the three out of state trips the Cougars will make this season will give his two standouts and the rest of the wrestlers on his varsity roster an advantage when it comes to the end of the season. (Photo by Michael Ortiz/Aurora Sentinel)

‘Tis the season to hit the road for many Aurora winter prep sports teams.

While many basketball, wrestling and swim teams visited points all around Colorado for tournament play in the first few weeks of the 2016-17 season, several others take it a step further.

A growing number of Aurora prep teams have seen the manyfold benefits of getting outside of the state’s borders. Team-building, the chance to see different and better competition than can be found in Colorado and all-around exposure are just a few of the reasons local teams like to travel.

Cherokee Trail wrestling coach Jeff Buck feels more than lucky to have the school administration and community support of his program needed to make traveling possible. The Cougars have long traveled out of state for multiple tournaments under Buck.

The Cougars just returned from a jaunt to California for the Jimmy Hamada Classic, hosted by La Costa Canyon High School, and they will head to the Shane Shatto tournament in Douglas, Wyo., and the Rockwell Rumble in Orem, Utah, in January.

For Buck, traveling is about two things: building team chemistry and exposing his team to better opponents.

“We like to travel because everywhere we go we get to see different types of competition,” Buck said, noting his team benefits from seeing California wrestlers who prefer to wrestle on their feet versus the more physical style they should see in Wyoming and Utah.

“It’s also really neat to see the team building and coming together we get,” Buck added. “Our big belief is that we are a family, so having the kids support each other and cheer each other on through some adversity in different places really helps us as a team.”

Senior 220-pounder Max Gonzales became the first wrestler in program history to win a championship at the Hamada tournament and four Cougars placed in the top four of their respective events, which may come into play when state berths or places are on the line.

The Grandview wrestling program has a long-standing tradition of traveling to Nevada for the prestigious Reno Tournament of Champions. Second-year head coach Ryan Budd has kept that going after taking over for original coach Greg Maestas.

Grandview has had a regular parade of state champions and placers in recent years, in part because of a rugged schedule that includes Reno along with big Colorado tournaments such as the Top of the Rockies Invitational at Centaurus High School and the Arvada West Invitational.

The Wolves had their first-placer last season in junior Giovani Federico, and Budd believes the unique atmosphere of the tournament is very beneficial to his team.

“It’s always a great tournament and it’s always fun to see the other Colorado teams that are there,” Budd said. “It’s the one time of year you can root for the other teams from Colorado instead of trying to beat them.”

Wrestling teams can afford to make the trips without affecting their standing in Colorado, however, basketball teams now have much to consider.

The new RPI-based postseasons approved by the Colorado High School Activities Association in all sports come with some risk for out-of-state play: games against out-of-state programs — no matter what their win-loss record — carries with it the weight of playing a .500 Colorado team, which can hurt RPI.

With the non-league gauntlet and loaded Centennial League slate ahead, Eaglecrest boys basketball coach John Olander isn’t worried about the impact of the four games his team will play at the prestigious Tarkanian Classic Dec. 15-20 in Las Vegas.

The top-line competition can only help his team, he said, and it gives them a chance to go against teams other than those they always see in spring, fall and summer leagues in Colorado.

“We play a tough enough schedule as it is, so it shouldn’t affect our RPI much and if it does, then RPI needs to be scrutinized even more,” Olander said, noting that in the past some Colorado tournaments would have hurt his team in the current RPI climate.

“I’ve found that getting out of town and being together as a team really helps us,” he added. “The years we’ve traveled, we’ve been pretty successful.”

Besides the competition and team-building aspect of the trip, the Tarkanian Classic gives players a chance to be seen by college coaches in a non-club format, which can lead to future scholarships.

Overland and Grandview also head to the Tarkanian Classic. (Orleans Division scoreboard/schedule) (Gatorade Division scoreboard/schedule)

Olander and his team do cleanup following football games and other events at Cherry Creek School District facilities to help defray the expenses.

Fellow Centennial League member Smoky Hill just returned from a strong three-game trip to Orem, Utah, to play in the FreeTax USA Shootout.

Coach Anthony Hardin thought the Buffaloes benefitted from facing teams such as Lone Peak (Utah), which he called one of the best defensive teams he’s ever seen, plus everything that comes along with traveling together as a team.

“No. 1, you are away from distractions; you are in a hostile environment when you play, but in the hotel it’s just 15 guys, in the van it’s 15 guys and those are the bonding and team moments that build winning culture,” Hardin said. “Come state tournament time, you have to beat teams like we saw in Utah…We schedule with the end in mind.”

On the other end of the RPI spectrum is Regis Jesuit girls basketball coach Carl Mattei, who has scheduled seven out of state games between the recent Fitz Tournament in Spokane, Wash. — where the Raiders went 1-1 — plus a five-game set in New York in January.

Regis Jesuit’s difficult Continental League schedule and a non-league slate that includes Grandview and a few other strong Colorado teams helps mitigate the impact, but it gives him at least a little pause.

“We’re playing seven out of state and Highlands Ranch is playing eight,” Mattei said. “We’ll have to look at it now because of the RPI. But for us, as long as we can get into the state tournament, it will be good for us,” Mattei said.

Grandview’s top-ranked 5A girls basketball team departs on Dec. 18 to take part in the four-day Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix.

Aurora teams traveled plenty as well in the fall. The Grandview football team headed to the San Diego area to play Murrieta Valley and the Eaglecrest volleyball team played a four-match set in Florida.

Several Aurora baseball teams take advantage of spring break to get to warm weather locations such as California, Arizona and Georgia, while a number of boys lacrosse teams also leave the state in the spring.

Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel


Boys Basketball: Regis Jesuit (Spartan Classic in Concord, Calif.); Smoky Hill (FreeTax USA Shootout in Orem, Utah); Eaglecrest, Grandview & Overland (Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas); Girls Basketball: Regis Jesuit (Fitz Tournament in Spokane, Wash. & Rose Classic Superjam in Brooklyn, NY); Grandview (Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix); Wrestling: Grandview (Reno Tournament of Champions); Cherokee Trail (Jimmy Hamada Classic in La Costa Canyon, Calif.; Shane Shatto Tournament in Douglas, Wyo. and Rockwell Rumble in Orem, Utah); Eaglecrest (Colby Duals in Colby, Kan.); Ice hockey: Regis Jesuit (Prep Invitational in Chicago)