By BRETT MARSHALL
It took nearly half of a season, but the Garden City Buffaloes wrestling team found its way home, and on Thursday at The New Garden, showed why it's the No. 1-ranked team in Class 6A.
The Buffs dominated Liberal, 48-12, in a Western Athletic Conference dual, and did it despite the fact numerous wrestlers moved up a weight, and other varsity wrestlers sat out trying to heal up after a grueling early part of January.
All in all, coach Carlos Prieto was happy and philosophical about the win.
"We just were trying to get some of the kids rested," coach Prieto said. "Winning the dual is good and we'll take it. But we've got bigger things coming up and we need to get them healthy."
Missing Thursday were Efrain Sanchez (113), Matt Urrutia (120), Trevor Kennedy (145), and Juan Rodriguez (182). Michael Prieto moved from his customary 106-pound weight to 120, and Alec Castillo, AJ Hurtado, Randall Long and Anthony Gardner all wrestled up at least one weight class.
"You never know how that's going to turn out," coach Prieto said of the weight class changes. "Four, five pounds can make a big difference. I thought the kids handled it pretty well. We did what we needed to do. Still, we have a lot of things to improve on."
For Hurtado, a senior, getting a chance to finally wrestle in front of the home crowd and in the New Garden was reward enough.
And the state champion at 132 a year ago rewarded the fans with a sterling performance in earning an 11-4 decision over Ayodale Braimah, one of the top wrestlers at 145 in Class 5A and a recent third-place finisher at Newton.
"I thought we could win that match with AJ, but I didn't know how much we'd dominate him," Prieto said of Hurtado's match. "But AJ doesn't surprise me anymore. He works hard, he sets an example that all the other wrestlers need to follow. He is poised, doesn't get rattled out there."
For Hurtado, his senior season has been all about improving and working on his ability to score more points. And that has resulted in a 23-5 record to date.
"It's good to see where I'm at and tonight it was good to see how I'd handle moving up one weight," Hurtado said. "I'm still learning something every day. I'm getting better on offense, still have to work on improving defense, but I'm pleased with the progress. It was just great to be in the Garden and see the home crowd."
For the young freshman Prieto, the coach's son, his pin of Kyler Thompson at 1:10 of the first period improved his first varsity season record to 28-1.
"It was just a great experience to wrestle here," the GCHS freshman said. "We've been waiting for this to come home and prove that we are the No. 1 team in 6A."
The younger Prieto said he wasn't doing anything different now, even considering he's under the watchful eye of his father/coach.
"He just tells me to continue to wrestle the way I have been, drilling hard in practice and staying focused," Michael Prieto said. "It's all about the coaches, my dad, and the other coaches. They're all outstanding. We've been fortunate I think in that we have the best techniques of any teams that we see. It's all about drilling every day and being in the best condition."
Senior Anthony Gardner notched one of the rare pins of the night for the Buffs, as he moved up to 182 (from 170) and nailed Shawn Lay at 1:16 of the first period.
The Buffs are back home at 7 p.m. Tuesday for another home WAC dual with Dodge City. That is the final tuneup before the Rocky Welton Invitational, set for Jan. 25-26.
Results in Scoreboard, Page B2.