Remember the titans of the Paonia Eagles and the Hotchkiss Bulldogs.
On the eve of consolidation of the two high schools, the North Fork Valley pair combine to leave a bountiful legacy of sports.
From baseball to girls track, from girls basketball to football, from wrestling to girls cross country, two high schools just 10.2 miles apart — linked by the North Fork of the Gunnison River — produced myriad state championships over the years.
Along with decades of history and memories.
“The sports legacy is a big part of both schools,” said Andy Pipher, who played a vital role in the storied athletic history at both Hotchkiss and Paonia. “Hopefully, the legacy won’t be lost.”
Pipher, an undefeated state-champion wrestler in 2008 at Hotchkiss High School, went on to a record-setting 20-year reign as the wrestling coach at Paonia High School.
The Eagles’ wrestlers won five team state championships under Pipher, including three consecutive state titles from 2012-2014.
“I spent a lot of time at both schools. Great students at both schools,” Pipher said. “Nobody likes to lose a high school … it was a tough decision. But now it’s done; let’s make the best of it.”
He said he has fond memories from both schools.
“That first state title in ’06 was one I’ll remember,” Pipher said, adding that he was fortunate to have hard-working wrestlers at Paonia. “We had hard-nosed kids; they had hard-nosed parents. If you surround kids with good, hard-working parents, the kids will succeed.”
In 2014, Pipher’s wrestlers succeeded at an unprecedented level, winning the state team title with five individual state champions.
“Those kids … they wrestled a lot. Those kids traveled together and wrestled as pee wees,” Pipher said. “They supported each other.”
They traveled to the then-Pepsi Center in Denver and dominated at the state championships with individual titles by Jesse Reed (126), Bo Pipher (132), Ty Coats (152), Zach Milner (160) and Tony Darling (heavyweight).
Reed was 40-0 in 2014. A rare four-time state champion, Reed was 86-0 in his final two years at Paonia High School. He finished his prep career 147-7.
Bo Pipher, who just finished his senior season of wrestling at Penn State University, was 37-2 with his 2014 state title. He closed his prep career as Colorado’s all-time leader in pins and won three state titles and finished second as a freshman. He is the son of Andy Pipher.
Teammate Coats was 39-2, Milner was 36-3 and Darling was 32-2.
Together the five Paonia state champions in 2014 combined for a record of 184-9.
“The 5A state champions (Arvada West) … came to Paonia for a dual that year,” Andy Pipher said. “It was the night before the Warrior Classic. We packed that gym in Paonia.”
He said the Eagles, in front of a standing-room-only crowd, challenged Arvada West before losing the dual by just three points.
“That tells you something; those 5A (wrestlers) would come up to wrestle at a 2A school,” Pipher said. “ They knew it would be one of their toughest duals of the season.”
Arvada West won the Warrior Classic title the next day.
Later that season, Arvada West won the 5A state wrestling title and Paonia won the 2A state title.
“That night was a great memory for the community, too,” Pipher said.
The Pipher family created even more Hotchkiss-Paonia memories when Andy Pipher’s Eagles wrestled against the Bulldogs, then coached by Andy’s older brother Chuck Pipher, who won two high school state title for the Bulldogs. He’s now the head coach at Colorado Mesa University.
“Yeah, those were fun,” Andy Pipher said, while most wrestling fans describe the brotherly matchups as intense and ultra-competitive.
Chuck Pipher’s 2004 Hotchkiss wrestling team won the state championship, the third in Hotchkiss school history.
“I think the biggest thing is how much sports mattered in those towns,” said Kurt Clay, who helped Hotchkiss High School win the state basketball championship in 1992. “Both towns supported their athletes. And both towns supported kids from the other town … at state, wrestling, track.”
Clay, who went on to play football at Western Colorado University in Gunnison, now is assistant superintendent of the Delta County School District.
He said he remembers packed gymnasiums and big crowds growing up in Hotchkiss.
“I remember how we filled that gym; standing-room only,” Clay said, recalling that officials had to stop games to clear fans along the baseline under the baskets. “There was that same pride, the same crowds for wrestling, too.”
He and twin brother Kenny, who played basketball at Western Colorado University, did what all kids did in Hotchkiss.
“We went to all the games. That’s what we did,” Clay said. “Before I got to high school, I always looked up to the athletes. I remember in fifth- and sixth-grades, Kenny and I went to (football) playoffs, everything.”
Clay’s father, Harold Clay, was a longtime boys basketball coach at Hotchkiss, leading the Bulldogs to their 1992 state title.
Clay also recalls, as a youngster, watching identical new high schools going up in Hotchkiss, Paonia and Cedaredge.
The North Fork region was booming.
In 1981, the Paonia area had five fully operating mines churning out coal, paychecks and student bodies. There were a total of 459 high school students at Paonia and Hotchkiss high schools at the time.
Fast forward to the fall of 2021 with a single mine operating near Paonia; projections indicate an enrollment of 306 at the consolidated high school, according to Clay.
Elementary school numbers also do not show future growth at Paonia High School, he said.
“It’s hard not to have a high school,” Clay said. “I feel for the Paonia community.”
Jennifer Celis, a Hotchkiss standout runner who recently graduated from Oklahoma State University, was part of combined cross-country teams.
“Combining the schools has been talked about for as long as I can remember,” Celis said. “My freshman and sophomore years in high school, Paonia combined with us for cross country. We enjoyed it; we made great friendships.”
She said it will be different to see the end of Hotchkiss and Paonia high schools with a single entity moving forward.
“It is bittersweet,” Celis said. “I’m sure it will be tough for awhile. But combining does have a lot of benefits.”
Kelly Cowan, the longtime Hotchkiss cross-country and track coach, said the co-op teams worked well in the past.