By BRETT MARSHALL
For most high schools, football is the king of sports and basketball runs a close second.
But at Garden City High School, one of only two Class 6A schools west of Hutchinson, wrestling is right up there with those two prominent sports.
Martin Segovia, current athletic director at GCHS, and a former head wrestling coach/assistant football coach, says it has historically been that way with the Buffaloes' programs.
"It's always been important to the community," said Segovia, himself a former state champion wrestler for the Buffs (1990). "You can look at the length of tenures of the coaches and you talk about wrestling and you can see that it's a given that there's been great support by the people."
Segovia, who started wrestling when he was an 8th grader, said he could remember when legendary coach Rocky Welton (1985-199) came to speak to the middle school kids about wrestling.
"You just knew there was a strong pedigree of wrestling here in Garden City and that it was important," Segovia said on the eve of the 55th Rocky Welton Invitational. "Family after family has been involved. The tradition has always been there it seems. Expectations are high. People expect you to be good."
Thus, it was paramount when Segovia, the Buffs' head coach from 2000 to 2007, had to search for the replacement for Monte Moser, who retired at the end of the 2012 season after five seasons as head coach and more than 30 years in the Buffs' program.
"Football, basketball are the top priority hires you have from an administrative perspective," Segovia said. "Wrestling is right there with those here at Garden City. It's a mental mindset when the community expects you to be successful."
The Buffs have won seven state team championships, the first in 1971 and then came the run of six in a nine-year span under Welton in the 1990s, the last being in 1999. Welton retired after that season and Segovia took the reins from Welton.
"One of the reasons we were so successful then is that we had football players wrestling and wrestlers playing football," Segovia said. "If you remember, it was a highly successful time for both of those programs here at the school. We need our wrestlers to play football and vice-versa."
Segovia said in the early years of wrestling in town, Bob Day, former YMCA wrestling coach, was among the key individuals to promote the sport.
"He started kids on the right way to wrestle, and we had others who were involved, too," Segovia said. "Joe Arellano and the Southwest Wrestlers Club was another major part of promoting wrestlers with the youth in town. He kept wrestling on its right trail."
The list of top wrestlers to come through Garden City is a lengthy one. There have been 27 individual state championships brought home by the Buffs. Recently, it was AJ Hurtado claiming the 2012 title at 132 pounds and Anthony Calderon winning in 2011. Two Buffs claimed titles in 2010 — Joey Dozier and Lane Greenlee.
Current assistant coach Ryan Kromer (2002) is a former state champion while another assistant, Kevin Perez, won his weight class at the Welton in 1992. Jason Nichols was a two-time staate champion for the Buffs in 2000 and 2001 as were Rob Mouser (1996-1997) and Jon Bigler (1978-1979).
"There's a lengthy list of top wrestlers," Segovia said.
He mentioned John Lightner, a state champion in 1965 who went on to win an NJCAA national championship at Garden City Community College.
"I remember John coming out to practice when he was about 50 and he'd probably be able to whup all of us," Segovia said. "People like John and the others are the ones who give back to wrestling and are the ones you want to emulate."
One of the traditions established by Welton during his tenure is the Wall of Fame. Inside the New Garden, and along the wall near the wrestling practice room, pictures are hung of all GCHS wrestlers who have won a medal at the state tournament (top six). That carries a lot of importance to the entire program and community, Segovia said.
"Anybody coming up to the varsity program looks at that and says 'I want to be the next guy on the wall,'" Segovia said. "Coach Welton started that, and it has carried on to the new building."
During the heyday years of Welton's leadership, the Buffs won a state championship without an individual title while also winning a crown with as many as five individual state champs.
"There's been times where we've qualified the entire team when we had 13 weight classes," Segovia said. "It's a great thing for the school, and a great thing for the community. We get great support from people both when we wrestle here in town and when we travel to other places to compete. People always say how well supported our program is."
What started in the late 1950s as a tournament predominantly comprised of Kansas schools, eventually took on a new look starting in the 1970s, when Edmond, Okla., came and dominated (1972 to 1974 team champs). Later, teams from Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska and Texas would find their way to western Kansas in late January for what originally was the Garden City Invitational and later named to honor Welton, who now resides in Abilene.
"It just took on a different dynamic look when the other states began coming," Segovia said. "Kearney, Neb., added a whole new gamut to the tournament. It used to be 16 to 18 teams, and now it's a barnburner of a tournament. When you look at the number of quality individuals as a whole, there will be some great match-ups. Some teams won't bring an entire roster, but they'll have a few really outstanding wrestlers, and they want to see how they stack up."
One of the changes for the 2013 tournament will be the return to one mat for the championship matches on Saturday evening. When the event was held at The Garden at the old GCHS gym, a spotlight was used to shine on the center mat with the rest of the gym darkened. It won't have the same feel as then, but the change this year reflects the desire to feature the top two wrestlers to reach the finals.
"It's prestigious to win a medal here, but it's really an accomplishment to get to the finals," Segovia said. "We just really wanted to make that something special again. It's the place to be. If you make the top six here, you can pretty much figure you're going to be good enough to get to state."
And while overseeing the entire athletic program at GCHS has its own set of challenges, Segovia said he keeps a close eye on one of his favorite sports.
"When you've been a part of this great program, both as a wrestler, assistant coach and head coach, you want to make sure the tradition carries on," Segovia said. "I think we've got a great group of coaches, just like we always have, and the kids respond to that."