Wrestling strength continues to be spread far and wide across Aurora.
For the second straight season, all 11 of the city’s programs will have at least one qualifier competing in the Class 5A & 4A state tournaments, which run Feb. 16-18 at the Pepsi Center.
In the aftermath of regional tournaments Feb. 10-11, 29 Aurora wrestlers — more than half of them first-timers — earned coveted chances to wrestle downtown.
Grandview came away with a city-best eight berths in the state tournament, followed by Cherokee Trail with five. Overland has four, Vista PEAK (4A) has a trio, Rangeview and Regis Jesuit have two apiece and Aurora Central, Eaglecrest, Gateway, Hinkley and Smoky Hill feature one each. (Full 5A/4A state tournament pairings, here)
Leading the way — at least as far as rankings — is the Cherokee Trail duo of seniors Zeke Silva and Max Gonzales, ranked No. 2 in 5A at their respective weights (195 & 220 pounds) by On The Mat and both coming off regional championships.
The Cougars’ quest for the program’s first state championship continues and Silva and Gonzales seemingly represent the best chance to make it happen. Both medaled at last season’s state tournament as Gonzales lost in the state championship match (as the first Cherokee Trail finalist) to take second and Silva placed fourth.
Both Cherokee Trail wrestlers have been ranked No. 2 virtually all season with a pair of brothers in front of them — former Regis Jesuit and current Mountain Vista wrestler Trent Schultz and Ponderosa’s Cohl Schultz, both defending state champions.
Silva and Gonzales — both regional champions with a combined record of 53-3 with two of the losses coming out of state and one via forfeit — feel they’ve driven each other to the point of winning a state championship.
“Max pushes me a lot more than anybody ever has, he’s a great workout partner,” Silva said of Gonzales, who has placed in the top three at state in the past two seasons.
“There are guys ranked above us, but we know what we’re up against,” he added.
Longtime Cougars coach Jeff Buck has long hoped for the program’s first state champion and believes it could happen this time if things go right.
“Max and Zeke are wrestling well and excited about state; I know they are going to go out and compete,” Buck said. “There are a couple of boys out there (the Schultzs) who are tougher than nails, but our guys are going to do what they can to give themselves a chance.”
Don’t count out Cherokee Trail senior 160-pounder Josh Richardson, either. Richardson had already secured his first state trip by making the Region 3 final, but trailed Grand Junction’s JT Skalecki 4-0 before a wild rally. With the score tied going into overtime after Skalecki was called repeatedly for stalling, Richardson earned the winning takedown to give the Cougars three regional champions for the first time.
Five of Richardson’s 11 losses came at out of state tournaments and two in Colorado came to Regis Jesuit’s Brandon Minear, who he could face in the second round. Junior heavyweight Davione Marshall and sophomore 138-pounder David Rivera — who wrestled at state last season — also head downtown for Cherokee Trail.
Despite losing four regulars, Grandview still came away with eight state qualifiers from Region 1, with a group that included regional champions Tyler Ross (182 pounds) and Robert Woods (195), plus regional runners-up in Giovani Federico (113), Armando Santillan (132) and Gabriel Baumgartner (285).
All have wrestled at the state tournament before, including Santillan, who was there as a sophomore in 2015 before missing last season due to injury.
Sophomore Dylan Ranieri (138), senior Shem Brown (145) and junior Grady Colgan (152) — all first-time qualifiers — round out the state tournament contingent for coach Ryan Budd.
Injuries, especially to sophomore 120-pounder Fabian Santillan, dropped the Wolves to No. 9 in On The Mat’s team rankings going into regionals. They could finish significantly higher at state with a slew of potential placers.
First-year Overland head coach Trevor Griffin has four qualifiers in the room, the largest contingent from the program in quite some time. Senior Sean Kelly (138 pounds) and junior Kaelin Chin (195) each got their first state tastes last season, while sophomore Isaiah Bradley (120) and freshman brother Grant (106) each go for the first time.
All four Trailblazers have been ranked in the top 10 of their respective weights virtually the entire season and have shown Griffin they have potential to do damage.
Vista PEAK has an all-time high of three state qualifiers for the 4A state tournament, including a three-timer in senior 113-pounder Dilan Esparza.
Esparza lost both of his matches as a sophomore, went 2-2 last season and feels he is in position to make the medal podium, aiming to better the program’s all-time high of a fifth-place finish by Junior Casillas in 2014. Juniors Tristan Curtis (126) and Jayden Smith (182) earned their way to state and hope to place as the Bison continue to grow.
Rangeview has a second-time qualifier in senior 145-pounder Deron Solomon, who went 0-2 at state as a freshman in 2014, but missed the past two seasons (including last year due to injury). Ranked in the top six at 145 pounds all season, Solomon has designs on a podium spot. He’ll be joined at state by teammate Bryan Fierro, a junior 113-pounder who will wrestle at Pepsi Center for the first time.
Solomon had a bit of advice for his teammate.
“It’s definitely a nervewracking experience (going for the first time), but I just told him to try to treat it like any other match,” Solomon said. “Nothing is ever set in stone in this sport, which is why I love it. You could be down by 14 points and then roll a guy over and pin him and you win. There’s no other sport like it, so he just needs to realize that if he keeps his head in the match, he can win.”
Regis Jesuit has a pair of state qualifiers as well in seniors Brian Hodes (152) and Brandon Minear, a returning state qualifier at 160. Minear has been ranked as high as No. 2 in 5A this season and could very well earn a shot at a title.
Besides Gonzales, Hinkley senior Serj Chavez is the only four-time state qualifier in Aurora’s contingent and he aims to break out this time.
After he finished 0-2 due to injury as a freshman, Chavez won a match at each of the past two state tournaments and hopes to get on the medal podium like former teammate Ben Rhoton did last season. Chavez had to win a 138-pound wrestleback at Region 4 to make it in, but he won by fall to advance.
Among other single qualifiers, Aurora Central’s Octavio Lopez (120 pounds) and Smoky Hill’s Ryan Campbell (285 pounds) have been to state before — Campbell went 1-2 last season and Lopez 0-2 — while Gateway senior Blake Thomas and Eaglecrest sophomore Tyler Maccagnan — both at 138 pounds — make their first state tournament appearances.
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @auroarsports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel