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Six Pirate wrestlers traveled to Denver to compete in the 3A state championships last weekend, wrestling in front of thousands at the Pepsi Center.
The competitors included senior Michal Mills at 132, junior Austin Courtney at 145, junior JC Parsons at 160, junior David McRee at 170, junior Alonso Hernandez at 195 and senior heavyweight Creede Wylie.
Before discussing tournament results, head coach Dan Janowsky described the excitement surrounding the event.
“It’s amazing to see your guys wrestling in a big sporting event like that; it demonstrates that part of the reason they work so hard all year is to get the opportunity to get to compete out on that floor,” said Janowsky. “It’s really special and exciting.”
The tournament began last Thursday, Feb. 20, as all of the Pirate wrestlers faced tough opponents in the first round. Unlike at some other tournaments, said Janowsky, there are no easy first rounds at state because of the level of competition. As such, competitors have to wrestle hard every time they are out on the mat.
Courtney placed in the top 12 overall, losing in the opening round, winning a consolation round Friday morning, and then losing a hard-fought match Friday evening. This was a difficult route that demanded a great deal of mental toughness, as Courtney had to work hard, fighting his way back up towards the top of the bracket after his initial loss.
According to Janowsky, Courtney demonstrated his competitive drive at the tournament, and will continue to refine his skills next season.
Mills, competing in a very strong weight class, lost his match on Thursday afternoon and then fell to another opponent Friday morning. These losses were not only heartbreaking for Mills, but also for the Pirate wresting team, as he has been a catalyst for the progress made over the course of this wrestling season.
“We’re (the coaches) disappointed for him,” said Janowsky, “but we couldn’t be more proud of the way he’s helped our team to improve and helped the program to get out of a kind of rut it’s been in for a few years.”
According to Janowsky, Mills began wrestling towards the end of his freshman year, starting on the JV team, and became a more serious competitor as a sophomore. Janowsky relayed that he has coached very few wrestlers that developed as quickly as Mills did, commenting that his improvement over the course of his time in the program was rather remarkable and a testament to his hard work.
Both Parsons and Hernandez finished in the top eight at the tournament. After the regional tournament, Parsons fell ill, causing him to wrestle at state while under the weather. After losing in the first round Thursday, Parsons won two hard-fought matches Friday, later losing to last years’ 160-pound state champion on Saturday morning. Despite his illness, Parsons won tough matches, demonstrating his growth and strength as a competitor. According to Janowsky, Parsons rose to the occasion in the face of various obstacles last weekend.
Hernandez won his opening match Thursday, only to lose a hard-fought quarterfinals match Friday morning. He was then able to win his match Friday evening with a pin, but lost again Saturday morning.
Janowsky described how Hernandez continues to build confidence in his own presence as a competitor on the mat. He also explained that many Pirate wrestlers, including Hernandez, could do a better job of consciously recognizing their strengths, further building confidence and presence to complement their battery of technical skills.
McRee had a successful tournament, taking fifth after winning a number of matches by being relentless and offensive in the second and third periods. According to Janowsky, a trademark of good wrestlers is their ability to do well in the late stages of matches, getting and seizing scoring opportunities. McRee won his first two matches, putting him in the top six. During the quarterfinals round, McRee fell behind early in the match, but his persistence helped him capture the lead later in the match and pull away to win. He faced the No. 1-ranked competitor in the semifinals Friday evening. During the match, McRee gave up a number of points early on and was unable to recover. On Saturday morning, he lost another close match that would have allowed him to wrestle for third place. Later that day, McRee wrestled for fifth and won.
Wylie demonstrated dominance throughout the state tournament. After winning the first match on Thursday 5-4, Wylie pinned his second opponent, won by 9-5 decision in the semifinals and pinned Centauri’s Devon Chacon at 93 seconds in the final to become Pagosa’s 17th state champion wrestler.
According to Janowsky, Wylie’s confidence continued to grow with each match at state, culminating in his winning the championship round.
During his interview with The SUN, Janowsky also took some time to explain the evolution of Wylie’s wrestling career.
During his freshman season, Wylie had a record of more losses than wins, but he wrestled well at regionals, qualifying for the state tournament and gaining a great deal of competitive experience there. Although injuries kept him from competing during his sophomore year and for part of his junior year, Wylie trained hard and again performed well at the regional tournament last year, advancing to compete with an injury at state.
According to Janowsky, as wrestling season progressed this year, Wylie began to gain confidence and momentum, really starting to visualize himself as a contender for the heavyweight state title. The culminating moment when Wylie pinned Chacon was exciting, and also liberating.
“I jumped up out of my seat when he got his pin, motivated by both joy and relief,” said Janowsky. “It was good the match didn’t progress into later rounds as the stakes during those rounds just get higher and higher, magnifying the pressure.”
The Pagosa Springs High School wrestling program was founded in 1972, making it a relatively new program in comparison to other competitive wrestling schools around the state.
The fact that since 1972, the Pirates have had 17 state champions is, according to Janowsky, a testament to the hard work and dedication of Pirate competitors and all of those that support them.
Overall, the Pirate team finished 16th in the 3A division this year.
Janowsky also discussed how impressed he is with team improvement this season. The Pirates have struggled to perform well over the past few years, in part due to a lack of leadership with high stakes competitive experience. However, after the improvement he has seen this year, Janowsky was excited to say that the program is on the up — the senior leadership this year played a large part in this turn around. Janowsky also explained that, for the first time in a number of years, the team will begin next season with a number of state qualifiers and a state placer. He also told The SUN that other Pirate wrestlers that came close to successfully qualifying for the state tournament will continue to build on their successes, further developing the skills and confidence needed to win more matches next year.
Janowsky has been coaching wrestling at Pagosa Springs High School for 23 years, and told The SUN that each year is unique and special.
“It sounds funny when I say I’ve been doing it (coaching) that long, because it definitely feels more like the blink of an eye,” said Janowsky. “It’s a blessing to be able to work with such special kids who labor without expectation and in the absence of a lot of fanfare. Pirate wrestlers have real class, and I’m proud to coach them.”