By BRETT MARSHALL
For the first month and a half of the 2013-14 wrestling season, Zac Finch and Alec Castillo had to sit on the sidelines while watching their Garden City Buffaloes' teammates battle through one of the toughest schedules in Kansas.
As the defending Class 6A state champion, and the preseason and still No. 1-ranked team in Class 6A, the Buffs did take some lumps during the treacherous schedule that included trips to the Kansas City Stampede, Scottsbluff, Neb., Norton, Clay Center and Newton.
Finally, though, just two weeks ago, the sophomore Castillo and junior Finch, returned to the lineup after lengthy recoveries from respective surgeries last year.
On Thursday, the two experienced wrestlers helped propel the Buffs to dominating victories over Western Athletic Conference foes Hays (58-11) and Great Bend (53-10) in a par of duals at The Garden.
Castillo, a 132-pounder, had elbow surgery last July to repair tendons, while Finch, the Buffs' 160-pounder, tore an ACL in his right knee in preseason football practice in August.
Now, the two have reinvigorated the Buffs and provided the quality depth that coach Carlos Prieto felt his team would have at some point. That was never more evident as both medaled last Saturday at the Rocky Welton Invitational, and then followed it up with twin victories each in Thursday's Western Athletic Conference dual matches with Hays and Great Bend.
Finch improved his season record to 8-3 with a pair of wins, the first coming with a pin of Kaelan Dietz of Hays just 51 seconds into the match. His second was a tougher win, being extended to the full three periods, squeaking out a 3-2 win over the Indians' Christian Rivas, who was 24-9 coming into the match.
"I feel great and happy to be back," said Finch. "I think I could've wrestled better at the Welton, but I'm getting into shape and feel a lot better than I did in my first match (Jan. 28 at Dodge City). It was a little scary going out there at first, but once I got through a match or two, I felt more like I could just go wrestle. For me now, it's just a timing thing, getting in better shape every day,"
Despite an abbreviated season, Finch says he feels he is a better wrestler than he was at the end of the 2013 season.
"I've gotten a lot better on my feet," Finch said. "Last year, I had just one takedown move and now I can go to a couple of different ones. That first semester was hard, watching others being successful and feeling left out. Things are going better than I expected and it just feels great to be back."
Castillo has been in much the same position as Finch, missing preseason and the first six weeks of the regular season.
Since his return Jan. 10 at Scottsbluff, Neb., Castillo has posted a modest 10-6 record, but earned a solid fourth-place finish in the Welton.
"It feels amazing to be back, just knocking off some of the rust," a smiling Castillo said after his second win Thursday. "The first couple of tournaments were not so good, but I felt good at the Rocky Welton. I'm definitely doing better and just working on the mental part, staying focused, staying tough."
Castillo said he felt he possessed more ability to end matches early this season than he did a year ago.
"I'm able to put away more kids quicker now," Castillo said. "Sitting out was not fun at all. Watching everybody else was really frustrating. I saw other wrestlers winning in my weight class that I knew I could beat."
For coach Prieto, the dominating wins were one more step down the home stretch of the regular season in preparation for the Feb. 22 Class 6A regional.
"Not bad, not great," Prieto said of Thursday's performance. "We've got a few things to keep working on, getting better and being ready for regionals in two weeks. We made some mistakes tonight in some matches that you can't make at regionals."
Prieto said he was pleased with the progress that both Finch and Castillo, along with 285-pounder Montana Fuller, have made since returning to the lineup.
"The more wins they get, the more confidence they build," coach Prieto said. "It's a momentum thing — a win here, a win there — it all adds up."
In both dual victories, the Buffs captured wins in 11 of the 14 weight classes.
Senior Chris Adler at 145 pounds pinned both of his opponents, taking a grand total of one minute, 43 seconds to accomplish the two wins. Mark Perez at 113 pounds won with a pin and a tech fall (15 point win). Michael Prieto swept his two matches with a pair of tech falls, while Tevin Briscoe at 138 pounds earned a pin and a tech fall win. Zeke Herrera also won twice at 182 pounds, both coming by pins. Fuller won his two heavyweight matches as well, both by decisions.
One final dual match will conclude the regular season, with that coming on Thursday when they host Class 4A Colby for Senior Night at The Garden. Varsity matches begin at 7 p.m. with junior varsity beginning at 6 o'clock. The state tournament is slated for Feb. 28 and March 1 at Hartman Arena in Wichita.
In the other dual matches Thursday, Great Bend beat Liberal 55-18 and Liberal nudged Hays 37-36.
Results in Scoreboard, Page B2.