By BRETT MARSHALL
Three Garden City Buffaloes' wrestlers will vie for first-place medals at 5 p.m. today in the 56th annual Rocky Welton Invitational at The Garden.
Two of those three — sophomore Michael Prieto and junior Tevin Briscoe — were in the 2013 title matches where they came up short, while today's third Buffs' wrestler — senior Montana Fuller — placed sixth a year ago.
Those three will carry the banner, along with nine other GCHS wrestlers who are coming through the back side consolation bracket for the Buffs as they try to overtake St. James Academy for the team championship, something the Buffs have not accomplished since 1993.
St. James owns a 177.0-166.5 lead heading into today's final action, which gets under way at 9 a.m. with consolation bracket matches. Championship, consolation third/fourth and fifth/sixth-place matches are slated to begin at 5 p.m.
For the Buffs, Friday's opening-day performance was their best in recent memory as eight on the team advanced to the semifinal matches, where they went 3-5 against top-flight opponents.
Fuller, a 285-pounder who has verbally committed to play football next fall at Hutchinson Community College, was perhaps as impressive as any Buffs' wrestler throughout day one of the Welton. He pinned all three of his opponents in just his third week back in competition after sitting out the first month and a half recovering from a football injury last fall.
"It's pretty cool, and exciting, to be in the finals," a smiling Fuller said after his final match had been completed.
It has been two years since Fuller, who might now be better nicknamed "Big Sky," transferred from Lakin so he could compete at a higher level and also play football at a 6A school. The move seems to have paid off handsomely for Fuller.
"After last year (sixth-place at the Welton, failed to qualify for state), I went to summer camp, wrestled some tournaments and tried to get better," Fuller said. "I just tried to make sure to take enough time off from the football injury that I was healthy when I came back. It's taking some time to get the rust off."
Since his return, Fuller has knocked off a Class 5A-ranked wrestler from Liberal and his heavyweight foe from Dodge City, before rolling through three opponents Friday.
He pinned Daniel Hernandez of Pueblo West just 54 seconds into the match in his opener; took 1:45 to pin Jacob Robles of Pueblo East in the quarterfinals; and then was extended into the second round of the semifinals before pinning Vincent Scott of Hays at the 2:39 mark.
"I was a little nervous at first today, but then I just tried to wrestle my matches the best I could," Fuller said. "I knew my semifinal opponent would be tough, because I only beat him by two points last year. Once I got on top of him, though, I had finish to it off. You don't get many chances, but when you're a heavyweight and get on top, you've got to put them away."
Fuller now takes on unbeaten and Class 5A's second-ranked wrestler in Raymond Gallegos in today's title match.
For Briscoe and Prieto, it will be an attempt at redemption from the 2013 finals.
Briscoe lost his title bout 6-3 to Jacob Rubio of Canyon Randall, Texas, while Prieto lost to Arkansas City's Logan Terrill by the same score.
Canyon Randall didn't return this year, so in this year's final, Briscoe (23-3) will be taking on Andale's Tylier Mies (27-2), the No. 1-ranked 138-pounder in Class 4A.
"I just need to go out and be aggressive and treat it like any other match," Briscoe said of his pending championship match. "I'm just starting to get back in the groove from my injury (sustained in mid-December). I'm just getting back physically and the coaches have been pushing us a lot, so I'm feeling better each week."
Briscoe had strong performances in a 13-6 decision over Dakota Colonese of Pine Creek, Colo.; a 15-0 technical fall win over Dominuque Evans of Eagle Crest, Colo.; and a 12-3 major decision over Zack Schridde of Great Bend in the semifinals.
"It's really exciting to have a chance to be back in the finals and I just want to go out and wrestle my match," Briscoe said. "I want to get back to dominating the way I had been."
Of the three finalists for the Buffs, Prieto has the most intriguing matchup in Arkansas City's Logan Terrill.
The pair have wrestled six times over the last two seasons, with Prieto owning a 4-2 edge. But in the 2013 Welton finals, Terrill defeated Prieto by that 6-3 score. Earlier this season, Prieto won at the Kansas City Stampede and Terrill evened things out at the Newton Tournament of Champions a couple of weeks ago. Now, Prieto would like to win one in front of the home crowd.
"We haven't had a Garden City wrestler win in the finals for some time, and I'd like to change that," Prieto said. "I've got to learn from my mistakes in the other matches and make sure I wrestle smart. It seems like whoever gets points first has almost always won, so I want to get that early advantage. He's tough, he rides tough on top and he always looks for places to be aggressive. I've just got to make sure I wrestle my match. It's exciting to have a chance to win here at home."
For Garden head coach Carlos Prieto, the opening day of the Welton couldn't have had a much better script. With eight wrestlers reaching the semifinals, the second-year coach was pleased with his team's performance.
"I thought the kids wrestled really good, and in some cases, they exceeded my expectations," coach Prieto said. "They wrestled their hearts out and I couldn't be more proud. There, for a while, in the quarterfinals, we didn't lose a match. And you talk about momentum, we had some going there. The kids feed off each other and it was great to see that today."
The five Buffs who lost in the semis will now drop into the consolation bracket, and with a couple of wins could find their way back to third-place finishes.
"We'll have to rely on our depth, and get some bonus points for us to have a chance to catch St. James," coach Prieto said.
That group includes Efrain Sanchez (106), Alec Castillo (132), Chris Adler (145), Jesse Nunez (152) and Sammy Reyes (195).
"I thought Alec showed in his first two matches today that he is the wrestler we saw at the end of last season when he got on a roll at the state tournament," Prieto said. "I'm pleased with his effort and pleased with the entire team's effort."
Results in Scoreboard, Page D2.