Sam Hart’s goal is to do some redecorating in the Cherokee Trail wrestling room at the end of the season.
A wall reserved for immortalizing the program’s state champions is blank — and has been that way since the school opened in 2003 — but a change could be coming.
Hart became Cherokee Trail’s fourth different finalist at the Class 5A state tournament last season — and its fourth runner-up — and he plans to break the seal.
“We see the state champ wall blank every day and Coach (Jeff Buck) always says ‘Who wants to be the first one on the wall?’” Hart said.
“It’s big motivation for us. …My goal is to become the first state champion in CT history.”
Four previous wrestlers earned the chance to become that first winner for the program,
Max Gonzales (in 2016 and 2017), Zeke Silva (2017) and Josh Richardson (2017) and all came up short, as did Hart, who lost to undefeated Hunter Tobiasson of Grand Junction with last season’s 220-pound crown at stake.
Longtime Cherokee Trail head coach Jeff Buck has sat in the corner at the Pepsi Center during the finals of each of those matches and he is more than ready to hug one of his wrestlers in celebration rather than in consolation.
Buck sees all the possibilities in Hart, who took a couple of week off after football season to heal up physically and is off to a 9-0 start with two tournament championships in the new wrestling season.
“We’ve gotten so close and I think the opportunity is there again,” Buck said of the chance to have a first state champion.
“Sam got a bad taste in his mouth last year, which is good. He worked hard and he has an opportunity to do that.”
Hart’s goals don’t just stop with a state championship, he wants to do it in grand style.
He became the final victim of an undefeated season for Tobiasson — who also beat him 3-0 in a regional championship match a week before state — and believes he can follow suit.
“I think I lost seven matches last year and I think I can maybe win them all this time,” said Hart, who had four pins — all in the first period — to win the Harold McCray Invitational Dec. 14.
Buck has not discouraged Hart in any way from chasing those lofty goals.
“I don’t see why Sam couldn’t be an undefeated state champ,” Buck said.
The only question is at what weight Hart will take his shot to become a state champion, which could be at 220 or 285 pounds.
With a 6-foot-5 frame that is now a solid 215 pounds — which helped him excel on the football field as a tight end (where he is a significant Division I prospect) and defensive end — Hart can physically handle the rigors of the both weight classes.
On The Mat had him ranked No. 1 at 285 pounds coming into the season, but he has only taken the mat at 220 pounds so far and has moved into the No. 1 slot at that weight. The decision will come later in the season.
Cherokee Trail has high hopes as a team as well, with returning state qualifiers in Andrew Chilton and Brock Labonde, as well as regional placers in Derek Glenn Jr., Austin Kammerer, Jorge Felix and Connor Davis.
Hart’s goals have only spurred on his teammates, who hope to beat him to the championship punch.
“I think it’s cool because Sam says he wants to be the first, but we have kids who are lighter than him who say ‘No, I want to be the first!’” Buck said. “The competition amongst the kids is great. …We’re keeping our fingers cross we can have some guys in position and break through. …We’re due.”
While Hart hopes to win a title as a junior, Regis Jesuit’s Antonio Segura comes into the season with one already to his credit.
Segura ended the reign of a three-time state champion in Pomona’s Theorius Robison in the semifinals and then took the title for himself.
He came into the season ranked No. 1 at 160 pounds by On The Mat and is ready for a dominating junior campaign after an offseason that saw him achieve All-American status.
Raiders coach Brent Bieshaar has no qualms using Segura at 145, 152 or 160 pounds depending on the tournament and how much difficulty he wants to put him in. Two tough tournaments in California following winter break will be a major test.
“Tony’s just that kid that never backs down from a challenge,” Bieshaar said of Segura, who is seeking to join John Crowley (2010, 2011, 2012), B.J. Sanchez (2003, 2004) and Grant Neal (2013, 2014) as the program’s multiple-time state champions.
Segura has wrestled both of his tournaments at 160 pounds this season (the Arapahoe Warrior Invitational and Harold McCray Invitational) and has won all eight of his matches by fall or major decision.
Zavier Carroll (182) and Antonio Sandora (195) are also off to big starts for the Raiders.
Grandview graduated a two-time state champion in Fabian Santillan (who is now starting at Stanford University as a freshman), so the door is open for the next state champ.
It could come from Santillan’s brother Alex or fellow senior Joe Renner. Santillan — who has placed third and fourth at state the past two seasons — is ranked No. 2 by On The Mat at 138 pounds, while Renner is third at 195.
Renner just placed fourth at the rugged Reno Tournament of Champions as he lost to the top seed out of Salem, Oregon, by just three points in the quarterfinals.
Junior Frankie Sanchez won eight of his 10 matches in the 106 pound bracket to take fifth (which pushed him to No. 1 in 5A in On The Mat’s Week 3 rankings) and sophomore Angelo Falise at 220 pounds came into the season ranked No. 2 at 220 pounds and is now No. 6.
Notably absent in the early going is Overland’s Grant Bradley, a three-time state qualifier who finished third in 2018.
Coming off an outstanding cross county season that included a national race, Bradley is focused on running and may or may not return in the new year.
Eaglecrest graduated all three of its placers from last season, but return two-time state qualifer Caeleb “Chalupa” Knoll, who is ranked No. 5 at 120 pounds, plus a deep lineup.
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports