Christopher Tomlinson

Paonia’s Grey Neal gets Weld Central’s Tanner Baumgartner on his back on his way to winning the 160-pound title of the Warrior Classic on Saturday.

In a tournament at Delta High School last year, Grey Neal further cemented his status at the time as the best wrestler at 160 pounds in Class 2A in Colorado.

The highlight of that tournament was when the Paonia High School star dominated Buena Vista’s Micah Hertrich, another of the state’s best in the classification.

That made it even harder for him to watch Hertrich win the state title in February as he finished third as a junior.

After spending most of the season at No. 1, he had to settle for bronze. A season of accomplishments had still turned out as a disappointment.

“That’s definitely how I would put it: as a disappointment,” Neal said. “I had competed all year. The kid who went and won it, I had actually beaten him the year before at the Delta Tournament, and I kind of dismantled him. It was kind of a gut-wrenching kind of thing, but it is what it is. You’ve got to turn the corner.”

Neal is ranked No. 2 at 160 by On The Mat this season, behind only Hertrich, and he’s lived up to that billing as a senior.

He won the 160-pound bracket at the Warrior Classic for the second straight year, beating Weld Central’s Tanner Baumgartner 6-4. With a second Warrior Classic title in tow, he has more confidence than ever that he can dethrone Hertrich and claim the Colorado crown this time around.

“It’s just about being able to bounce back after a disappointing year, just to know I have the resiliency to come back after something like that,” Neal said. “It would definitely be a highlight of my career as a wrestler just to know that’s probably the end of the road. Going out on top would be a really cool thing to do.”

For most programs, having no individual state champions over a two-year period would be no cause for alarm. At Paonia, however, a program with some of the best tradition in the sport on the Western Slope, it’s enough to be considered a drought.

Nate Wiggins has achieved success in his two years in charge of the program, but any individual accolades have eluded his teams thus far.

Neal hopes to be the one to give his coach individual state title No. 1.

“Our coach has been hard on himself because he hasn’t had an individual state champion yet,” Neal said. “It helps fuel the fire to want to come out and compete for him because he’s put so much time and work into this program he’s built. I feel like I have to do it for him, but I’ve got to do it for myself, also, just to prove we can still do it.”

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