By BRETT MARSHALL
What does a coach and a wrestler do for an encore after they have led a team to one state championship and the wrestler captures an individual gold medal in his first try as a freshman?
An easy answer, with a not-so-easy path, would be to go after No. 2.
That's exactly what Garden City High School coach/father Carlos Prieto and son, Michael, did this past wrestling season as the Buffs captured their second consecutive Class 6A team championship, and the younger Prieto garnered his repeat individual title, this time at 113 pounds.
For their efforts, the father/son duo have been named Coach and Wrestler of the Year by The Telegram for the second consecutive season.
"I think this season was similar to my freshman season," said Michael, who finished the year with a 44-2 record after going 41-2 in 2013 to win the 106-pound division. "By the end of the season, people were picking up on some of my techniques, so I had to change some things. People were trying to get me on my back and knocking me off my feet."
The sophomore Prieto said he thought he had improved his work when he is on the bottom.
"I'm just always trying to move, improve, and get better," he said. "I worked on getting better hand control, moving more to get more standup techniques. Really, I just tried to tighten up little things and always listen to my coaches."
After becoming the first GCHS freshman in school history to win a state individual title, Prieto said he knew he would have to keep working hard if he were to get a repeat.
"It's what I expected, but it also was a little bit of a surprise," he said. "I knew I had a good chance, but I think with all the tournaments I've gone to with my dad, I felt I could do it."
Prieto had attended elementary and middle school in nearby Holcomb before transferring to Garden City for his freshman season so he could wrestle for his father, who had just been named the GCHS head coach.
"It's what I wanted to do since I was a 5, 6-year-old," said Michael. "I wanted to wrestle for Dad. He knows me best. He knows how to teach me best, and then we have great assistants who do a great job."
Prieto and his teammate, Tevin Briscoe, captured individual titles in late January at the prestigious Rocky Welton Invitational in Garden City, becoming the first Buffs' wrestlers to garner individual titles in nearly a decade.
"I remember some of the practices I went to when Dad was coaching (at Ulysses)," Michael said. "They were intense, but they got me excited."
It was a third-place trophy that he earned as a 6-year-old that convinced him to commit to the sport at an early age.
"It just got me feeling really good about the sport, and a sport where I could have a chance to be good," Michael said.
Now squarely in his sights is a third state team and individual title in 2015. If he and Briscoe succeed in the 3-peat, they would become the first in school history to do so.
"It's always there with that kind of a goal, and I think since we've done these things already, we know what it takes," Michael said of looking ahead. "The best part is getting to win state and have your dad in your corner. I remember running over and jumping into his arms and getting the biggest hug."
The younger Prieto said he anticipates moving up at least a couple of weight divisions, perhaps to 126 or even 132 pounds for his junior year.
"I'm going through a growth spurt, and I want to be at a weight where I don't have to lose much more than seven or eight pounds," Michael said. "It just depends on how big I get."
Coach Carlos Prieto
For his coach/father, the 2013-14 season was a whirlwind, with high expectations (ranked No. 1 in 6A all season) and lots of uncertainty.
The uncertainty came in the form of injuries. A variety of injuries kept 132-pounder Alec Castillo, 160-pound Zac Finch and 285-pounder Montana Fuller out for more than half the season. During that time, the Buffs had non-winning efforts at numerous invitationals. And when the Buffs had too many matches in their schedule in late January, Prieto had to take a back-up lineup of seven wrestlers to Liberal, where they lost in a Western Athletic Conference dual.
"Everybody was wondering what was going on with Garden City wrestling," Prieto recalled of that Jan. 23 dual at Liberal. "People were worried we wouldn't win the WAC. I told them I was only worried about one thing, and that was to win the state. That may seem a little callous, but it's the way I feel. I'd sacrifice all the other regular season stuff for a state championship."
The process eventually worked, as Castillo, Finch and Fuller all made it back for the final month of the season, and all were integral pieces of the team roster when they headed to state at the end of February. Still, the full varsity roster wasn't active as freshman Peyton Hill was out with a finger injury that required surgery. In the final two weeks, senior Matt Marez was forced to sit out at 170 pounds due to a medical condition.
"I think the thing that I'm most proud of for the boys is that we won the state this year without our strongest lineup," Prieto said. "If we'd have had everybody healthy, I think we would have run away with it like we did last year."
Included in that injury-riddled season was a broken hand suffered by 145-pound senior Chris Adler, the No. 1-ranked 6A wrestler. He suffered the injury in the first round of a consolation match in which he was leading but eventually lost, before he could win his way back into the medal rounds.
"He wrestled two rounds plus with a broken hand and still almost won," Prieto said of Adler. "I don't know how many kids could have done that. I feel so badly for him that he didn't medal, but he showed as much heart, as much leadership, as anybody we had."
The quality of depth for the Buffs also was reflected in challenge matches that the Buffs had prior to and during the season to determine varsity spots. In a couple of instances, freshmen were winning against seniors.
"The ranking matches were some of the most stressful moments we had," Prieto said. "We had good seniors, and we had good freshmen. I guess the best thing about it is that the kids determined who made the varsity. That's what is fair — it was determined on the mat. That's the beauty of it."
Prieto and his staff also focus on developing team chemistry, and the bonding of the 2013-14 team took longer than it did the previous season, the head coach said.
"It didn't work as well, and part of it was we had different kids in the lineup all through the season," coach Prieto said. "We were trying to find the right rotation. I think once we knew who was wrestling for regionals and then state, we were able to develop a much better bond. The No. 1 goal was to repeat, and we managed to accomplish that."
It is difficult for Prieto to separate the two state titles, although he readily admits he still gets chills when he watches the video of the 2013 state championship matches.
"That first one will always be special, and I kinda tear up in the eye," he said of the video. "We (team, school, community) hadn't done it (won state) for a long time. This year, I think we thought it might be easier, but then everybody was wanting to beat Garden City. We had to work harder, and in some cases we might not have been quite as good, but I knew if the kids we had on the mat wrestled well, we had a chance to win. And boy did they go out and do just that."
And just in case there are doubters about where the Buffs' program sits after back-to-back state titles, there are nine wrestlers returning from the state team, along with two others who competed on the varsity for more than half the season and posted solid records.
"We've got a strong group coming back, and I know they still have the desire and hunger to keep this going," coach Prieto said. "They understand the sacrifice it takes, and they're willing to put in the work to achieve those goals."
And so the team that dominated the 1990s seems to be on track for another big run at state.