By BRETT MARSHALL
Despite the fact that the Garden City Buffaloes' wrestling team has been ranked No. 1 throughout the 2013-14 season, and also won its own prestigious Rocky Welton Invitational in late January, head coach Carlos Prieto knows the road back to Hartman Arena in Wichita and the Class 6A state tournament on Feb. 28 and March 1 is full of both opportunity and challenge.
The regular season finished with a strong flourish for the Buffs, first starting with the Welton, where they won the 30-team event for the first time in 21 years.
Then, with a full lineup back in place, dominated Dodge City, Great Bend, Hays and Colby in dual matches to close out the regular season.
Saturday, their quest to repeat as 6A state champions gets under way at Wichita Northwest when they compete in the regional tournament. The top four finishers in each of the 14 weight classes will advance to the state tourney.
A year ago, a powerhouse and deep Buffs' team rolled to the regional title by scoring 217.5 points to runner-up Derby's 183. Then, a week later, the Buffs stormed to their first state crown since 1999 by scoring enough points on the opening day that they would not have needed to score another day two and still win. But they did keep on scoring, and ran away with the title, scoring 173.5 points to second-place finisher Junction City's 125.5.
Prieto is realistic enough to know that nothing is a given, so when the Buffs take to the mat at 9 a.m. Saturday, the Buffs will have to prove once again they are the force they were a year ago.
"The rankings don't mean anything," Prieto said on Thursday. "You've still gotta go out and take care of business on the mat. We are the team to beat. The kids understand that. I'm confident in the kids, and I think we are ready. We're anxious to be able to go out and wrestle somebody else."
Despite the fact the Buffs return two individual state champions (junior Tevin Briscoe and sophomore Michael Prieto), the Buffs know they will have plenty of quality competition from the other seven teams — No. 6-ranked Wichita Northwest, No. 9 Maize High and No. 10 Dodge City — along with a number of state-ranked individuals from the other schools. Rounding out the team list are Campus, Hutchinson, Wichita North and Wichita South.
There will be two changes in the lineup for the Buffs as 170-pounder Matt Marez, a senior, has a physical condition which will keep him from competing, Prieto said. In his place will be freshman Josh Reyes, the younger brother of the Buffs' Sammy Reyes.
"It's a tough situation for Matt as a senior, but we wanted to protect him and the other wrestlers," Prieto said.
The other lineup change comes at 220 pounds, where senior Luis Castaneda and freshman Benny Hernandez battled back and forth all season, both of whom had solid seasons. But in the wrestle-off for the spot, Hernandez came out on top of the best 2-of-3 series. He will take a 22-12 record into the regional.
"As a coach, you certainly want your seniors to be competing, especially those who worked hard like Luis," coach Prieto said. "But this was the fairest way to decide and Benny won it fair and square. I fully expect him to qualify for state."
Briscoe (27-3) and Prieto (38-2) are the No. 1-ranked Class 6A wrestlers in their weight classes at 138 and 113 pounds. Both claimed individual titles at the Welton.
With four regionals in play, the Buffs are considered to be in the toughest as far as number of ranked individuals.
"It's always a tough place to be, no matter who the teams are," Prieto said. "Every school has some wrestlers who are good in their division, even if the team isn't that strong. So we know what's in front of us."
In addition, the Buffs have two other top-ranked wrestlers in 106-pound junior Efrain Sanchez (23-10) and 145-pound senior Chris Adler (39-6). There are five other Buffs who are ranked — Alec Castillo (No. 4 at 132 pounds, 11-6), Jesse Nunez (No. 5 at 152 pounds, 27-11), Zac Finch (No. 3 at 160 pounds, 9-3), Sammy Reyes (No. 3 at 195 pounds, 34-6) and Montana Fuller (No. 2 at 285 pounds, 8-1). Finch and Fuller returned to the lineup at the Welton after missing the first month and a half recovering from football injuries. Castillo, too, missed a good portion of the season following surgery last summer.
Those nine, along with the remaining five wrestlers, will be key in determining the strength and depth of the team that will go to Hartman Arena to defend the state title.
"We've had a good, hard week of practice with a lot of conditioning," Prieto said. "I'm expecting to push a lot of guys through to the state. Health-wise, we're in pretty good shape."
The remainder of the lineup for the Buffs will be Mark Perez (21-16 at 120 pounds), Thomas Marquez (5-14 at 126 pounds), Matt Marez (20-17 at 170 pounds), Zeke Herrera (4-4 at 182 pounds) and either Luis Castaneda or Benny Hernandez (22-12) at 220 pounds.
Other top individuals who will challenge the Buffs are Dodge City's Jaquan Graves at 120 pounds (No. 4); Clay Weil (No. 1) of Dodge City and Jacob Wilgers (No. 2) of Maize at 126 pounds; Shane Brock (No. 2) of Northwest and Cole Moses (No. 3) at 132 pounds; Tylor Gracis (No. 5) of Dodge City and Dylan Brazzle (No. 6) of Northwest at 138 pounds; Dylan Beckner (No. 3) of Northwest at 145 pounds; Brett Moon (No. 2) of Maize at 152 pounds; Saul Ortiz (No. 2) at 160 pounds; Jared Page (No. 4) of Hutchinson and Micquille Robinson (No. 6) of Northwest at 170 pounds; Andre Turner (No. 6) of Northwest at 182 pounds; Caleb Ranklin (No. 4) of Northwest at 195 pounds; Jordan Bell (No. 4) of Northwest and Francisco Escamilla (No. 5) of Hutchinson at 220 pounds; and Lex Plummer (No. 1) of Hutchinson and Tyler Bastian (No. 3) of Campus at 285 pounds.