The team to beat
Paonia has no problem with favorite label for Warrior Classic
Paonia is at a point with its wrestling program in which the Eagles fear no one. They’ll take on all comers in Colorado with the expectation of winning.
That’s why Paonia coach Andy Pipher didn’t hesitate to accept the tag of favorite entering the 35-team Warrior Classic, which starts Friday, ends Saturday and provides competition that will be tougher than some wrestlers will face in their respective state tournaments.
Paonia won the Warrior Classic a year ago, ending Roosevelt’s six-year reign as the tourney champ, and the Eagles followed up in February with their second straight Class 2A state title. They return nine state qualifiers this year, including seven semifinalists, three finalists and two-time Class 2A state champion Jesse Reed.
“If you ask me, we’re always the favorite,” Pipher said. “We still have the athletes.”
He means no disrespect to any other team. Rather, he has tremendous respect for the competition, which includes Arvada West and Rocky Mountain, Class 5A’s first- and second-ranked teams, respectively, and Pueblo South, which is ranked No. 4 in 4A. Plus, Fruita Monument is ranked No. 8 in 5A.
Paonia won the Warrior Classic with 204.5 points last year, 22.5 points ahead of runner-up Rocky Mountain, by placing five wrestlers in the finals. Three of those finalists are back, led by Josh Altman, the champion at 113 last year.
The Eagles have the bonus of having Reed for the Warrior Classic this year after he missed it last year because of a football injury.
Paonia is healthy, but many of its wrestlers were members of the Eagles’ Class 1A state championship football team, which caused them to miss about 10 wrestling practices. They’re catching up on their conditioning, and Pipher said his team has had a great week of practice.
“I feel like we’re starting to hit on all cylinders, although some might not be fully ready until after the new year,” he said.
Palisade coach Lonnie Tate made no bones about his favorite to win the Warrior.
“I think Paonia will take it. I’d be surprised if they didn’t,” he said. “I think they’re the elite team in the state. ... They’re so loaded.”
Arvada West coach Ron Granieri expects his team and Paonia to be in the thick of the title hunt, and he added, “You know who’s tough? Rocky Mountain.”
Granieri said his team also has several newcomers this year who wrestled for other schools a year ago, but most of them won’t be eligible to wrestle until the second half of the season. One newcomer who will be available, though, is junior Vincent Casados, who placed third in the 3A state meet last season for Holy Family.
Arvada West also has a junior, Payton Tatwater, who will be going for his third Warrior Classic title this year. He won at 126 last year, then was joined as a third-place finisher at the 5A state meet by Tony Silva-Bussey, who also placed third at the Warrior last year at 170.
Paonia and Arvada West will go into the tournament with a good sense of each other after tonight. The two will wrestle a nonleague dual at 6 p.m. in Paonia.
“Even if Arvada West wins the dual, I’d still favor Paonia to win the Warrior Classic,” Grand Junction coach Cole Allison said. “They’re suited for that style of tournament.”
Fruita Monument coach Dan Van Hoose refrained from giving anyone the favorite tag. Rather, he said, “It’s who shows up and wrestles.”
Fruita has one of the returning Warrior Classic champions, Jacob Seely, who won the title at 170 last year and will wrestle at 195 this year.
Joining Altman, Tatwater and Seely as returning Warrior champs are: Monte Vista’s Diondre Garcia (106); Olathe’s Trenton Piatt (120); Grand Junction’s Jacob Trujillo (145) and Uintah’s Cole Mair. Trujillo, the 5A state champion at 145 last season, is unlikely to compete this weekend because of an injury.
Injuries definitely will keep two more of the area’s top wrestlers out of the tourney: Palisade senior Dalton Hannigan, the 4A state champ at 126 last season; and Fruita junior Isaac Rodriguez, the 5A state runner-up to Trujillo at 145 last season. Hannigan was the runner-up to Tatwater at the Warrior Classic last year, and Rodriguez missed the Warrior with an injury.