By BRETT MARSHALL
For Garden City High School graduating senior AJ Hurtado, there was nothing better in capping off his four-year Buffaloes' wrestling career than being a key member of the 2013 Class 6A state team champions.
Hurtado, a four-time state tournament qualifier, had already claimed his individual crowning accomplishment in 2012, when he defeated Wichita Heights' Barry Newton, 10-5, to win the 132-pound 6A state title.
And now that he has completed his prep career, finishing with a 99-40 won-loss record, Hurtado has decided to move from the top of the mountain at GCHS to climbing another mountain at the collegiate level.
He did that on Friday morning at GCHS when he put his name to an NCAA national letter-of-intent to wrestle next year for the Division II national champion University of Nebraska-Kearney. It was a goal that was culminated after four years of dedicated, hard work.
"I looked at a number of other schools, too," Hurtado said prior to signing the letter, with family, friends, classmates and teammates in attendance. "But Kearney's academics and their wrestling program really stood out. It's not too far from home that I can't get home on a weekend if I need to."
Kearney's program is already at the top of the NCAA Division II in wrestling, as the Antelopes have won the last two national titles and own one other title (2008), along with three runner-up finishes under coach Marc Bauer.
The Antelopes compete in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association against the likes of Fort Hays State University, Washburn, Emporia State and Pittsburg State.
"I emailed coach Bauer earlier this year, and then we began exchanging emails," Hurtado said of the recruiting process. "We talked about what other sports I had played, my academics. I took my recruiting trip a couple of weeks ago (first weekend of May) and I just really liked the wrestling atmosphere there. Everyone respects the wrestlers there."
Hurtado, who finished runner-up his senior season at 138 pounds when he lost a tough 11-1 major decision to rival Dane Edwards of Dodge City, completed his final year with a 31-8 record, his best of his four-year career. He was 33-13 in his championship junior campaign after compiling records of 20-11 as a sophomore and 15-8 as a freshman.
The progression of Hurtado's career and his accomplishments was not lost on Buffs' head coach Carlos Prieto.
"When I accepted the coaching position a year ago, I was looking for strong leaders on the team," Prieto said. "The first person I thought of was AJ. He's not gonna be the most vocal leader, but he'll lead by example. I went to him and told him that I needed him to be a leader, and he did just that."
More importantly, though, Prieto said Hurtado's commitment to his academics and the type of person he is was equally as impressive.
"AJ's gonna be successful no matter what he chooses to do," Prieto said. "He's the type of young man that, as a father, that you'd want your daughter to marry. What you see is what you get. He's genuine and has great character."
Hurtado said he was unsure as to what weight division he would try to compete in next year, but most likely either 141 or 133. Still, the opportunity to move on and work toward a degree in pre-pharmacy is high on his list.
"The other schools I looked at just didn't seem to have the combination of outstanding academics in pharmacy and the strong wrestling," Hurtado said. "Going to the next level will give me a chance to always try to improve. I've learned from my coaches here about work ethic and pushing yourself in the wrestling room."
Prieto said he was just as proud of Hurtado for the way he handled an unspecified injury which came in the late January Rocky Welton Invitational in Garden City.
"He never complained once about it. Nobody outside of us knew about it," Prieto said. "I wish he had been 100 percent at the end of his senior year, but he wasn't. Still, to get all the way to the finals speaks volumes about his heart and dedication. He fought through so much. He gave everything he had and I look for him to be successful in wrestling and in life."