When the dust settled at Colorado’s biggest high school sporting event — the annual state wrestling meet — Pagosa wrestlers had pulled off a coup.
Two Pirates emerged from the fray as state champions — Joe DuCharme and Mike Smith — with another, Steven Smith, placing third. The six-man Pirate contingent finished sixth in Colorado Class 3A, in a field of 48 teams.
DuCharme’s win at 160 pounds was satisfying in more than one way: The Pirate senior captured the gold medal with a win over Zach Diaz, of Yuma, last year’s champ — the wrestler who knocked DuCharme out of contention at last year’s tournament.
Further, DuCharme, who went to Denver undefeated, had to beat the fourth-, third- and second-place finishers at the tournament to take the title.
The tourney started for DuCharme with a match against Mike Ellsworth, of Discovery Canyon. The Pirate fashioned a dominating 22-6 win by technical fall.
Next up was Zack Faber, of Buena Vista, a senior with a 24-2 record — 24-3 after DuCharme pinned him at 3 minutes, 58 seconds.
DuCharme came up against Elliot Copeland, of Bennett, in the championship semifinal. Copeland, a tough sophomore, entered the tournament undefeated, like DuCharme. That streak ended as the Pirate ground out a decisive 12-7 decision to advance to the finals and send Copeland to the consolation round.
Then, the rematch with Diaz. Observing the Yuma wrestler in the semifinals, Coach Dan Janowsky noted some tendencies and, in the early-morning warmup, DuCharme went to work making adjustments in style that he would use that night in the final. In brief: close the distance, stay low.
It worked: it was the Pirate who got the takedowns — five of them, to one for Diaz. The Yuma wrestler backed up throughout the fight as DuCharme put together two takedowns in the first round for a 5-2 lead, and two more in the second round, to lead 8-4. DuCharme controlled the action in the final period to win 11-6.
“Joe was super focused on staying in and staying down,” said Janowsky. “Just what we were working on. If you look at Joe’s bracket, he did it the hard way: he beat the numbers four, three and two, in that order. He had to beat the best and, when you look at the matches, they were all pretty one-sided. That shows real superiority. Joe wrestled very well in all phases.”
Mike Smith had another kind of obstacle to overcome on his way to the 171-pound championship: a mental hurdle.
Last year, Smith made the finals and lost in overtime — something to think about for an athlete, and something that could easily weigh down an effort.
It was a weight Smith would not bear. He wasn’t going to let this one slip away.
His battle to the top began against Erick Cordova, of Brush. Smith put Cordova’s shoulders to the mat at 3:14 and moved on to the next round to fight Marvin Rivera, of Olathe, a senior with a 32-8 record. Rivera put up a game struggle. The two wrestlers fought through a scoreless first period. Smith started down in the second, and Rivera stayed on top throughout, with Smith managing an escape with six seconds left in the period.
Smith’s 1-0 lead vanished as Rivera escaped to tie the score. With 21 seconds left in the match, Smith managed the takedown. Rivera escaped, but could not catch up. Smith had a hard-fought 3-2 decision.
Things were easier in the semifinal match against Juan Garcia, of Gunnison. Smith earned a trip to the finals, pinning Garcia at 3:00.
When Smith looked across the mat in the finals, he saw a very familiar face: Aaron Heredia, of Monte Vista. And “familiar” is the word that is the key to the final match. These were two athletes who knew each others’ tendencies very well, and it was an echo of last year’s final, when Smith faced Jordan Larson, of Bayfield.
It was Smith who capitalized on what he had learned, and who shed the baggage of last year’s last-minute disappointment. The Pirate earned a 4-2 first-period lead, taking Heredia down twice and intentionally allowing him to escape to set up the next move.
Smith outpaced Heredia in the second round 2-1, with a takedown versus and escape. Heredia started down in the third, and escaped to close the gap to 6-4 but Smith’s two takedowns, against Heredia’s two escapes, sealed the victory for the Pirate.
“The more you wrestle someone, especially if they have a good coach, like Heredia does, the more they pick up on what you do,” said Janowsky. “They try to take away the things you like to do and do well. Mike stuck to his strengths and overcame; he ground out a win with five takedowns. He was on his feet, working on Heredia’s legs a lot, pressing the whole time. Mike had the pressure of knowing he had this in his hands last year, and he struggled through that pressure.”
Steven Smith went 4-1 at Denver to take third at 119.
The Pirate veteran, hampered throughout the tourney by illness, got his first win of the event with a fall at 1:50 over Joseph Pridy, of Olathe.
Smith advanced to the quarterfinals to meet Andrew Garcia, of The Academy. A 12-6 decision put Smith in the semifinal against Kenny Porter of Bennett, a senior with a 36-2 record. Porter dropped Smith to the consolation bracket with a 14-5 win.
As was the case for Mike Smith, Steven Smith looked across the mat in his consolation semifinal to see a familiar face — Mario Espinoza, of Centauri. Espinoza was familiar, but was not treated as a friend. Smith went ahead 2-0 at the end of one period, then stepped on the gas, getting two takedowns and an escape to extend the lead to 7-1 at the end of two. In the third period, the Pirate hammered home the win, getting two takedowns and a three-point near fall to win emphatically, 14-2.
The fight for third place would not be as easy. Smith’s opponent was Evan Boyer, of Valley. The wrestlers battled scoreless in the opening period. Boyer escaped to score first, but Smith responded with a takedown. Boyer escaped again; Smith got another takedown. Boyer escaped to end the period, with Smith ahead 4-3.
The athletes started in the neutral position in the final period and, at the outset, Boyer appeared to be on the way to a win, taking Smith down and gaining the 5-3 advantage. As the period wound down, the Pirate escaped, then took Boyer down to capture a tight, 7-6 victory.
“Steven got a little distracted in the semifinal, with the intensity of the moment, and I know he would like to have that chance back — he believes he is the best guy in the state” said Janowsky. “On the positive side, he responded like a champion. He was very sick and down emotionally after that loss, but on Saturday he wrestled through it. I have a lot of respect for someone who can pick up the pieces and do their best, That’s what we try to teach guys, and that’s what Steven did.”
The three other Pirates who journeyed to Denver all contributed victories and points to the team total.
Caleb Pringle ended his high school career with two wins at the Pepsi Center: over Alejandro Lucero of Holy Family and Kyle King, of Florence.
“Caleb got two wins for us,” said the coach. “And he beat the guy from Florence who he had lost to two or three times over the years, and who he lost to at the regional tournament.”
Cole Mastin, a senior, got a win with a fall over John Hinds, of Classical Academy, at 140 pounds. “And Cole had a great match, despite a loss,” said the coach. “He was down five to nothing, and battled back to tie, before losing by a point. That was a great effort.”
Preston Sandoval, a sophomore, got a win with a fall at 275. “Preston had an awesome tournament,” said Janowsky. “He is basically at two fifteen, wrestling at two seventy-five. Both he and Cole got pins and contributed to our overall finish. Our guys wrestled super hard in those consolation matches, battling for every team point and every chance to go one more round.”
Overall, the Pirates were 16-7 in matches wrestled at this year’s state tournament.
The three medalists were 13-1 at the Denver event.
“The three of our medalists — Joe, Mike and Steven — elevated our program a lot,” said Janowsky. “They helped raise our standard back where it was a couple years ago and set a great example. Now, its up to our younger guys to keep it up.”