By BRETT MARSHALL
Now that all the preliminaries are over, the Garden City Buffaloes wrestling team can solely focus on the No. 1 goal it has had all season.
That would be going to Hartman Arena in Wichita on Friday and Saturday and successfully defending their Class 6A 2013 state team championship.
"The state tournament always has some surprises, and last year I think I felt a lot of pressure, some of it self-imposed, to bring back a state championship to Garden City," head coach Carlos Prieto said 48 hours prior to the start of the 2014 tournament. "This year, I think the pressure's off and we'll go there, wrestle one match at a time, and the rest will take care of itself."
While the Buffs have been ranked No. 1 in Class 6A all season, it hasn't come without some bumps in the road.
Alec Castillo (126), Zac Finch (160), and Montana Fuller (285) all had to miss more than six weeks of the regular season, recovering from various injuries.
Freshman Peyton Hill was lost for the season with a hand injury after making an immediate impact on the team at the start of the December schedule.
And then there was finding replacements for graduating seniors AJ Hurtado, Trevor Kennedy and Anthony Gardner, all of whom medaled at the state meet.
"It's a long, long season, and I've asked people to be patient with the boys this year," coach Prieto said. "We knew once we got the regulars back in the lineup, that we'd be pretty good. But in the meantime it has given some of our other wrestlers a chance to compete and to improve. As a result, I think we're a much deeper team."
Look no further than Zeke Herrera at 182 pounds, and Benny Hernandez at 220 pounds. Both freshmen, they were backups before the season started, but Hernandez beat out senior Luis Castaneda to begin the schedule, and the two switched back and forth during the year. When the challenge matches got under way for the regionals, Hernandez won 2 of 3 against Castaneda to earn the spot. Herrera beat out junior Tye Hahn, who had been subbing for the injured Hill.
Throughout the season, the Buffs just kept plugging away, competing in what many consider to be one of the toughest schedules of any Kansas school. They went to Scottsbluff, Neb., competed in the Clay Center Duals, and the Norton Invitational. They've matched up with the top Class 5A, 4A and 3-2-1A teams in the state at various times, with mixed results.
"We saw a variety of competition, and the travel, the wear and tear on the kids was tough at times," coach Prieto said. "We had to sit out starters once, and I took some heat for that. But my primary goal here is to win state championships. If we wrestle the way we know how, we should come back with another state championship. I really feel we've got the deepest room (roster) in the state."
Perhaps things crystallized when Prieto got the bulk of his injured wrestlers back in late January, just in time for the prestigious Rocky Welton Invitational in Garden City. With a full roster of first-teamers, the Buffs captured the team title at the Welton for the first time in 21 years, with the young Prieto and Briscoe winning titles in the 113- and 138-pound divisions. It had been eight years since the Buffs could claim an individual gold medal at the Welton.
The Buffs tuned up for the state on Saturday by winning the 6A regional at Wichita Northwest, finishing with 189.5 points to 160 for runner-up Northwest.
They came out of the regionals with 12 individual qualifiers, five of whom won championships in their weight classes. That group included Efrain Sanchez (26-10) at 106 pounds, Michael Prieto (40-2) at 113 pounds, Briscoe (29-3) at 138 pounds, Chris Adler (41-6) at 145 pounds, and Sammy Reyes (36-6) at 195 pounds.
Freshman Jesse Nunez (29-13, 152 pounds), and junior Zac Finch (11-4, 160) finished second in their divisions while freshman Zeke Herrera (5-3, 182) and the senior Fuller (11-2, captured thirds. Thomas Marquez (7-16, 126), Alec Castillo (13-8, 132), and Hernandez (24-14, 220) each finished fourth to earn the final spots at Northwest.
Pairings for the state tournament were released earlier this week, and the sponsoring Kansas State High School Activities Association has a formula where the regional champions each face a fourth-place finisher from another regional as does the runner-up and third-place finishers.
When the Buffs won the 2013 title, they did it with a wide array of top performances across multiple weight divisions.
From Michael Prieto at 106 pounds a year ago, to Reyes, the Buffs completed their title run by having eight medalists.
In addition to Prieto's and Briscoe's titles, Hurtado (138), Kennedy (145) and Gardner (170) placed second. Reyes was third at 195, Castillo was fourth at 126 and Adler took fifth at 152 pounds.
The two defending champions — Michael Prieto now at 113 pounds and Briscoe at 138 pounds — have enjoyed stellar seasons, going 40-2 and 29-3, respectively.
"It feels a little different going back to state this year, but I'm looking for the same results, both for the team and for myself," Michael Prieto said. "We're the strongest team out there, and now people know who you are. Sure, there's some pressure, but the pressure is a privilege. We just have to wrestle smart, get the bonus points, and let things take care of themselves."
Briscoe, too, said he's excited to return to the state tournament with the same goals in mind.
"We've all been in here working hard," Briscoe said. "I think I'm stronger mentally this year. I don't let things get to me. Last year, there would be times when I doubted myself. You've just got to push through. I'm better on my feet. We're looking forward to accomplishing our goals."
Pairings in Scoreboard, Page B2.