Wrestling for Eagles a dream for most youngsters in Paonia

Dustin Braslin, top, is one of 31 wrestlers on the Paonia High School wrestling team. With only 80 boys in the high school, wrestling is a big part of the experience for most of the boys. Paonia placed second in the Warrior Classic, finishing with 155 points.

Paonia’s Morgan Rieder, bottom, tries to escape Saturday from the hold of Montrose’s Cole Panter during the Warrior Classic.

“Show me your stance,” Andy Pipher will say.

Then a kid drops into his wrestling stance. They usually come a few feet tall, even less when crouched. Their technique tends to be shaky.

“Hands up, thumbs in,” Pipher will say.

Ant they’re ready to go.

Middle-schoolers, kindergartners, even the preschoolers in and around Paonia — they all seem to know the Paonia High School wrestling coach.

Many kids around here know before they enter grade school what sport they’ll play for a dozen years. Several years removed from the cradle, they’re ready to apply one. Chicken wings come with a side of arm pit, not ranch. And riding bulls is just practice for pinning humans.

“I knew I wanted to wrestle in preschool,” heavyweight Tony Darling said. “I thought it would be fun one day to wrestle (for Paonia).”

Darling learned the cradle in kindergarten. It’s the move that makes a few hundred fans who pack the Paonia High School gym for a dual meet scream: “Squeeze!”

In 16 years, Pipher has led Paonia to two state team championships (2006, ‘09). The Eagles returned six state placers from last season. But hundreds return each season to follow their alma mater.

“Brothers, dads, uncles around town wrestled here, or they some know someone who wrestled at Paonia,” Pipher said. “No program does anything without great administration.

“Principals, coaches, they’re real supportive of our wrestling program.”

There are 80 boys in the high school, Pipher said. Thirty-one wrestle. That means there’s almost a one-in-two chance you don’t want to bump into a Paonia High School boy. They’re generally sons of coal miners, farmers and ranchers.

Paula Cole once wondered where all the cowboys have gone. They’re in the North Fork Valley. Wrestling.

They’re not necessarily John Wayne-archetypes. Toughness and kindness mix. Adrian Lopez, a senior, came to Paonia in seventh grade from Cortez. “I liked it,” he said. “It’s a small town; everybody’s nice.”

And they find plenty to do.

“I like to snowmobile, four-wheel, ride horses,” 132-pounder Ty Coats said. “Break horses.”

Likewise, summer time does not mean sun-tanning. It often means bull riding in Carbondale.

Casey Christian, one of the team’s best wrestlers who’s out until after Christmas break with an elbow injury, began bull riding last summer. Just needed something to do. During his first ride, he found out adrenaline from jostling on an enraged, bucking bull is oh, so sweet. All four seconds of it.

“I didn’t think much about it,” Christian said. “Just hang on.”


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