Fourth time’s a charm?

State title the goal for Palisade senior Justin Ray

Palisade’s Justin Ray, left, is gunning for his first state title in his final appearance at the state tournament. The 132-pound senior has never reached the finals in Denver, but hopes this is his year.

Justin Ray saw what the Colorado state wrestling championship finals were like as a freshman.

The Palisade High School wrestler’s practice partner reached the pinnacle of high school wrestling on Saturday night in front of 10,000 people at the Pepsi Center in Denver.

That was three years ago.

“Ever since my freshman year, seeing my partner Daniel Salazar in the finals, I’ve always wanted to be there,” Ray said.

The 132-pound senior (34-4), with his regional runner-up finish Saturday, now has qualified for the Class 4A state championships all four years, and he placed twice and reached the semifinals last year but hasn’t reached the finals.

“Justin is having a real good season,” Palisade coach Brian Rush said. “His goal is to win a state title ... He’s got a good shot with two or three others in there.

“That would be fantastic to see (Ray) on top of the podium. The whole team is a good bunch of kids.”

Salazar graduated last year and now wrestles at Colorado Mesa University, meaning for the first time since the sixth grade, Ray didn’t have Salazar to wrestle every day in practice.

“It’s odd not having Daniel there,” said Ray, who started wrestling when he was 8 years old after watching an older brother wrestle.

“I’ve always had the drive and competitiveness inside me,” Ray said. “I’ve been wrestling with the Colorado Outlaws and all those kids. I’ve wrestled all the tough local kids.

“(Wrestling) has played a huge role in my life. It taught me work ethic and to strive for greatness in school and in sports.”

Salazar and Casey Thornton worked with Ray when he started high school.

“I got no rest my freshman year,” Ray said. “That set up my high school career.”

This year Ray has worked with juniors Dalton Hannigan and Trevor Garcia.

“Since we got Dalton and Trevor, I took them under my wings and started working with them. I still have great partners.

... Hopefully some of the new kids will get that from them next year.”

Hannigan and Garcia each won regional titles last weekend to qualify for state. Garcia qualified for the first time.

“I came in as a freshman, it was (Ray) and Daniel Salazar. I always looked up to those two,” Hannigan said. “They pushed me in practice. They showed me what it takes to be as good as those two. They gave me that extra drive to push myself to be successful like them.”

Ray hopes to continue to wrestle in college and plans to study engineering. He’s looking at Colorado School of Mines.

For now, he’s focused on finishing his prep career on a winning note.

“I’m going to give it my all,” Ray said. “It’s my senior year. I’m going to leave it all on the mat, no regrets.”


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