By BRETT MARSHALL
As the Garden City High School Buffaloes wrestling team wrapped up its final competition prior to the 55th Rocky Welton Invitational's start on Friday, head coach Carlos Prieto, his assistants and the Buffs' wrestlers themselves all turned their eyes toward what has become one of the premier tournaments in Kansas.
The Buffs rolled past Western Athletic Conference foe Dodge City with a 53-12 dual victory on Tuesday night at the New Garden and will be one of 28 teams participating in the prestigious Welton, which begins at noon on Friday and will conclude Saturday night.
Prieto, previously an assistant under Monte Moser, has guided the 2012-13 edition of the Buffs to a No. 1 ranking in Class 6A and has put them through a rigorous schedule that has included the Canyon-Randal (Texas) Duals, the Kansas City Stampede, the Derby Invitational and Newton Tournament of Champions.
He has three No. 1-ranked 6A wrestlers in the lineup for the Welton, including 2012 132-pound state champion AJ Hurtado (23-6 at 138), who just suffered a tough 3-1 loss on Tuesday to No. 2-ranked Dane Edwards of Dodge City in the dual match-up.
Freshman Michael Prieto (29-1) is top-ranked at 106 pounds as is sophomore Tevin Briscoe (28-3) at 132 pounds. Other Buffs who are ranked in 6A include Trevor Kennedy (No. 3, 145), Chris Adler (No. 6, 152), Zac Finch (No. 5, 160), Anthony Gardner (No. 2, 170), Juan Carlos Rodriguez (No. 4, 182) and Sammy Reyes (No. 5, 195). Rodriguez, nursing a knee injury, will not compete in the Welton.
With perennial powers Ponderosa and Pine Creek, Colo., as well as Rio Rancho, N.M., absent this year, Prieto was concerned about the quality at the top before the final returns of invitations came rolling in. Now, the Welton will see New Mexico powerhouse Piedra Vista, the two-time Class 4A state champion. Piedra has two returning state champions on its current roster and 11 of the 14 weight class wrestlers are ranked in the state. Among the elite wrestlers for the team are Sam Sandoval (106, 33-1), Jacob Palmgren (120, 23-0), Anthony Juckes (132, 30-3) and Christian Acosta (220, 32-1).
And if that's not enough, consider Cleveland, N.M., which captured the Class 5A state championship in 2012 and brings back two individual state titleholders in Paul Mascarenas at 113 pounds and Clayton Panky at 220 pounds. Trey Nicoley, sixth at the New Mexico state tourney at 106 pounds, is currently ranked No. 3 in the state. Mascarenas is a three-time state champion, and Panky is again ranked No. 1 in his weight class.
"Despite losing Pine Creek and Ponderosa, we've got some quality schools coming in," Prieto said. "You've got ranked teams from New Mexico, Colorado, Texas and Kansas, so fans will see a bunch of terrific wrestlers. The field, depth-wise, is as tough, if not tougher than its ever been."
It's been 20 years since the Buffs have stepped up on the team champion podium (1993) when Rocky Welton himself was coaching the Buffs to a bevy of state championships. Prieto knows that it is a tall order to win the team title, but he does see a much-improved and now relatively healthy squad being more competitive.
"A top five, perhaps a top three is not out of the question," Prieto said when asked where he thought the team might finish. "There are great schools here, and it will be a real dogfight all the way through. If the boys do well, we'll be in the hunt."
Among Kansas schools, there are 10 ranked teams, including Class 5A No. 1 Arkansas City, which captured the Welton a year ago. The Bulldogs have finished ahead of the Buffs in the Stampede and both Derby and Newton tournaments.
"They've been a pain in our side, so I'm hoping that we can close the gap, perhaps finish above them if we wrestle as good as I think we can," Prieto said.
The first-year coach said he expects a number of his wrestlers to end up on the medal stand (top 6 finish) by the end of the tourney on Saturday.
"I expect a bunch of them to be there," Prieto said. "When you expect great things, great things happen. Up and down our lineup, we've got some quality kids, and I hope they prove me right. The thing I've stressed to them is to be tougher, physically and mentally, and to be more poised."
Prieto said that the strength of this year's team has been through its light weights, but Gardner at 170 and Reyes at 195 have been steadily improving.
"If you finish in the top six here, you've got a good chance to punch your ticket to the state tournament," Prieto said. "We want to use this to see where we're at, with the ultimate goal of continuing to improve and be at our best come regional and state tournaments. That's our goal."
Maize, the only other ranked 6A schools, is No. 10. Five Class 5A schools are currently ranked (No. 2 St. James Academy, No. 7 Newton, No. 8 Great Bend and No. 10 Emporia). Andale is the No. 3-ranked team in Class 4A and Scott City, the defending Class 3A state champion, is currently ranked No. 4 and Chaparral is at No. 10.
No fewer than 47 individuals are ranked in their respective weight divisions by the Kansas Wrestling Coaches Association latest poll. In addition to the three Buffs, Hays High's Preston Weigel, who lost a 2-0 decision to Levi Eck of Andale in the 170-pound final here a year ago, is 29-0 and ranked No. 1 at 195 pounds. Eck, meanwhile, is currently No. 1 at 182 pounds in Class 4A.
Freshman Stephen Tujague of St. James Academy is ranked No. 1 in 5A at 106 pounds as is Great Bend's Chris Burley at 126 pounds. Arkansas City's Cody Eastman is the top-ranked 145-pound 5A wrestler. In addition to Eck, Andale has 120-pounder Tyler Mies, ranked No. 1 in 4A. Hugoton's Patrick Weaver is ranked No. 2 at 145 pounds in 4A while Ulysses' Armando Sandoval is ranked No. 3 at 182 pounds. Other area ranked wrestlers include Class 3A Scott City's James Jurgens (No. 3, 120), Alex Kough (No. 2, 126), Warren Kropp (No. 2, 160) and Michael McEachern (No. 3, 285). Holcomb's Keegan Amos is ranked No. 6 at 132 pounds in Class 3A.
Baca County, Colo., from Springfield, is among the top small-class schools in the state this year. The Wolverines were runners-up in Class 2A and return five wrestlers who placed in the state tourney a year ago. The top grapplers include Stetson Loader (120, 19-1), Terrell Stafford (182, 21-1) and Johnny Loflin (195, 14-1).
Bear Creek, Colo. has one returning state champion who will compete in 126-pounder PT Garcia (19-1). Chaparral's top returner is 285-pounder Clay Wilcox, who lost a 1-0 decision to Scott City's Luke Hayes in last year's Welton championship match. Wilcox is currently ranked No. 1 in 3A and No. 3 overall in all classes.
Friday's schedule will be highlighted by the quarterfinals and semifinals at approximately 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. Saturday's medal round matches will begin at approximately 2 p.m. with championship matches once again on a single center-floor mat set to begin at about 4:30 p.m.