Gabriel Baumgartner had a very important question for the referee in front of him Feb. 18 at Pepsi Center.
At the end of the Class 5A 285 pound state championship match, the Grandview senior had an honesty query: “I just won, right?”
A cleary exhausted Baumgartner got the answer that he’d hoped for — a resounding yes, followed by having his arm raised — as he had outlasted Brighton’s Tanner Aitken for a 4-2 overtime win.
“I felt like I was in a dream when I finished the match, so I had to ask the ref if I had actually won it, because I wasn’t quite sure,” Baumgartner said shortly after climbing down from the top spot of the medal podium, yet another confirmation of his win.
“I was still dazed and I thought ‘did I actually win this?’” he added. “I realized it afterwards when my hand was raised, but I was like ‘oh my gosh, this is amazing.’
“I can’t totally describe it, but I guess it feels like accomplishing the thing you’ve worked your life for.”
Baumgartner’s win capped an impressive night on the big stage for Aurora, which had four finalists in all as Cherokee Trail’s Josh Richardson (160 pounds), Zeke Silva (195 pounds) and Max Gonzales (220 pounds) also wrestled.
But Baumgartner was the only one to win and became the first state wrestling champion from an Aurora program since Regis Jesuit grad Grant Neal won his second straight state title in 2014.
In Grandview terms, Baumgartner became the fifth wrestler to earn one of the program’s “gold bricks” that go to state champions and snapped a title drought of nearly a decade. Eric Wilson (112) and Cody Gilmore (285) won the Wolves’ last titles in 2008, while Jon Brascetta (145) and Curtis McNary (152) got things started by winning championships in 2006.
“I’m so proud of Gabe, he’s the first state champion I’ve coached and what an honor it was,” Grandview coach Ryan Budd said. “It was great to see somebody from Grandview out there getting their hand raised at the end.
A couple of times during the match, Baumgartner’s championship victory seemed in doubt.
Aitken — who had pinned an ill Baumgartner during the Top of the Rockies tournament in January — had the position for a takedown in the third period that would have ended the match. But Baumgartner held him off and pushed it to overtime to give himself a chance.
Baumgartner then caught Aitken’s right leg, drove into him and put him down for the winning points, though he didn’t completely know it at the time.
“At that point, it was just will; I was thinking ‘I could just quit here and be done,’ but that’s where that extra bit of will kicked in and I was like ‘No, no, no!,” he said. “After that, I was able to keep fighting and I thought ‘if I can get out of this, I can win’ and this can finish with me on top.”
Baumgartner’s reaction was unlike the fist-pumping, mat-thumping, coaching-hugging displays put on by many other state winners — especially given the dramatic circumstances — but a huge smile finally crept across his face as he walked off the mat with Budd and assistant coach Brian Timberman.
Unlike so many of the state champions who had their arms raised at the Pepsi Center, Baumgartner had many days earlier in his prep wrestling career when that seemed like an impossibility.
An immeasureable amount of hard work and dedication — including a number of camps prior to his junior and senior seasons — helped put him on a path to the ultimate transformation.
“I went from freshman year not being able to do anything, getting beat all the time and not even wanting to wrestle and now I’m in the finals for state,” he said. “Just seeing the change over that time is amazing and really hard to comprehend.”
Grandview’s wrestling room is a place where state champions had been forged before and it happened again as Baumgartner benefitted from the tactics, coaching and endurance he picked up there.
Baumgartner credited the work he did with 2016 grad Josh Vigil-Harrison — who placed third the past two seasons at heavyweight, but fell just short of making it to the finals — in terms of feel and technique, while his coaches gave him offensive tools to work with that he didn’t have last season.
Endurance also was on Baumgartner’s side this season, in large part because of the way things are run in the Grandview room, where superior fitness is one of the biggest tenets.
With the conditioning on his side and a better grasp of how to attack, Baumgartner’s strategy is not to make a mistake, let his opponent begin to wear down and then go on the offensive later.
“We’re consistently doing conditioning; most bigger guys, when they go longer, they are tired, but for me I’m used to it,” Baumgartner said. “I’m forced to keep up with the little guys in the room. If I have to push it to triple overtime to win, I’ll gladly do it. Having that conditioning edge is huge.”
It happened that way in the final, as he clearly had more left in the tank than Aitken did.
Though he gave up a reversal to fall behind 2-1 with less than a minute left in the third period, Baumgartner was able to earn an escape point to tie it and push to overtime where he could win it.
The state championship has also answered a question Baumgartner had about his future.
“Since I won this, it confirms I definitely want to wrestle in college,” Baumgartner said. “I wasn’t so sure, but now I know that I can’t give up on wrestling just yet. It’s too much fun.”
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel