By BRETT MARSHALL
There's one team title that matters most to Garden City second-year coach Carlos Prieto, and that's the one that the Buffaloes compete for on Feb. 28 to March 1 this year in Wichita.
That would be the Class 6A state tournament, where the Buffs won the 2013 Class 6A state crown at Hartman Arena, the first state title for the program since 1999.
So when the annual Rocky Welton Invitational, one of the biggest and toughest tournaments, rolls into town on Friday and Saturday, Prieto's focus won't be so much on winning the team title as it will be to see his individuals continue to improve toward that final season goal.
Perhaps it is because 21 years have passed since the Buffs last claimed a Welton team championship (1993), when it was then called the Garden City Invitational. In the heyday of the 1990s, when Rocky Welton was doing the coaching of the Buffs, they won five tourney titles in a span of six years. But then the quality of teams improved dramatically, and since then it has been dominated by non-Kansas teams, with the last two years being the exception with Arkansas City claiming the trophy.
"Our primary goal for the Rocky Welton is to provide the most competitive tournament we can for everyone who comes, including us," said Prieto on Wednesday. "Most of the coaches who bring their kids here seek out the best competition for them ,and this tournament certainly provides that."
The Buffs placed fourth in 2013, with Ark City dominating the field by scoring 200 points to runner-up Piedra Vista, N.M., with 152 points and Newton third at 142.5 points. The Buffs were close behind with 141 points while Cleveland, N.M., rounded out the top five with 137 points. The two New Mexico teams are absent this season due to different scheduling issues between the two states, but Arkansas City and Newton do return with an abundance of talent.
In their place, however, are perennial Colorado powers Pine Creek, Ponderosa and another new entry in Fountain-Fort Carson. All three of those teams are ranked in the top 10 of Colorado's large class schools (5A). Throw in Class B power Scottsbluff, Neb., and the battle for the team title takes on a new personality. In all, 30 teams with more than 250 wrestlers will invade The Garden, starting at 11 a.m. Friday with the opening round of championship matches.
"I think it will be a lot more competitive than last year," Prieto said. "And if we wrestle the way I know we can, we should be in the mix. It's not necessarily one of our primary goals, to win the Welton, but if it happened, it would be like icing on the cake if we go ahead and win the state, too."
In each of the 14 weight classes, there is enough talent to make a state tournament bracket look like a minor league group.
That's because in each division, there are at least seven or more wrestlers with 20 or more victories midway through the season.
"If you look up and down the lineups, there's quality in every weight class," Prieto said. "With wrestlers coming from different states, it makes seedings just that more difficult. When you don't wrestle head to head, it is tough to know where to put some wrestlers."
Two of the Buffs' top wrestlers will be out to improve on runner-up finishes a year ago at the Welton, both then going on to claim 6A state individual titles in sparking the Buffs to their first team state title in 14 seasons. That would be sophomore Michael Prieto, the coach's son, and junior Tevin Briscoe. Both have moved up a weight class from 2013, the younger Prieto now at 113 and sporting a 30-2 record while Briscoe, who sat out portions of the January schedule, is 20-3 at 138 pounds.
Prieto may have an opportunity to avenge his loss in last year's final as Logan Terrill of Arkansas City returns, and the two have already met twice this season, each winning once — Prieto at the Kansas City Stampede in December, and Terrill at the Newton Invitational two weeks ago.
The Buffs are coming off perhaps their most impressive outing of the season, having gone on the road to rival Dodge City (ranked No. 10 in 6A) and throttled the Red Demons 52-12, winning 11 of the 14 matches.
The team has been bolstered by the return of 285-pound senior Montana Fuller, who has won both of his matches since returning from a football injury, and 160-pound junior Zac Finch, who made his way back to the lineup for the first time after suffering a knee injury prior to the 2013 football season. He won his match on Tuesday by an 8-4 decision.
"Getting those two back, getting Alec Castillo (132) this weekend, gives us a pretty solid lineup, top to bottom," coach Prieto said. "The key for this tournament, since it is bracketed much like the state tournament, is to win your first two matches, because then you're going to medal. That's our goal with each wrestler — win your first two."
Garden's lineup will likely consist of Efrain Sanchez (17-8 at 106), Michael Prieto (30-2 at 113), Mark Perez (15-13 at 120), Thomas Marquez (4-9 at 126), Castillo (4-4 at 132), Briscoe (20-3 at 138), Chris Adler (31-5 at 145), Jesse Nunez (23-8 at 152), Finch (1-0 at 160), Matt Marez (18-13 at 170), Antonio Perez (0-1 at 182), Sammy Reyes (28-4 at 195), Luis Castaneda (7-4 at 220) and Fuller (2-0 at 285).
Other top wrestlers from southwest Kansas include James Jurgens of Scott City (11-5 at 126), Pedro Ordonez of Hugoton (22-2 at 126), Warren Kropp of Scott City (10-1 at 170), Diego Maravilla of Ulysses (19-6 at 195), Bradley Campbell of Hugoton (24-6 at 195) and Otto Orosco of Ulysses (19-2 at 220).
Quarterfinal matches are slated for late Friday afternoon and semifinals will be contested at 6 p.m. Championship, along with consolation third/fourth and fifth/sixth place matches will be held at 5 p.m. Saturday.