Grappling for glory: Top teams in town for Welton Invitational




The Rocky Welton Invitational is no stranger to pulling in one of the strongest fields of any wrestling tournament in Kansas.

When the 55th edition of the Invitational begins at noon Friday with first-round matches at The Garden, quality will be in abundance once again.

Twenty-seven teams from Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico will battle for team and individual honors over two days at the Rocky, and Garden City High School coach Monte Moser is once again pleased with the caliber of teams and individuals who will be participating.

"The quality is still up there," Moser said earlier this week. "Not only do we have some of the best wrestlers in Kansas, but when you throw in the Colorado schools and Cleveland, N.M., the strength of the field is impressive."

Before the two-day extravaganza begins, though, the Buffaloes will face Cleveland, N.M., in a dual meet at 7 p.m. today at The Garden.

While defending champion Canyon-Randall of Texas is not in this year's field, nor is fourth-place finisher Rio Rancho, N.M., eight of the top 10 teams from 2011 are back. Included in that field are Kansas powerhouses Arkansas City (No. 1 in Class 5A), Andale (No. 1 in 4A) and Scott City (No. 1 in 3-2-1A). In addition to those three top-ranked teams, five other teams from Kansas also are ranked in the latest poll by the Kansas Wrestling Coaches Association.

Host Garden City holds down the No. 4 spot in Class 6A while Dodge City is at No. 8. Hays, the defending Western Athletic Conference champ, is ranked No. 5 in Class 5A. Newton is ranked No. 2 in Class 5A while St. James Academy is the No. 5-ranked team in Class 4A.

"We've already seen a number of these teams from earlier tournaments and there's a bunch of good wrestlers people will see," Moser said. "We lost Canyon-Randall, but picked up Ark City (Garden wrestled at Ark City rather than at Canyon-Randall in December)."

Moser expects Pine Creek, Colo., to be among the favorites this year along with Ponderosa, Colo. Recently, Pine Creek competed in a major national prep tournament in California with 72 teams from across the country and Moser said the Eagles held their own.

Moser, whose team has struggled with filling out its weight divisions this year due to illness and injury, welcomes back senior Jon Heiman for the Welton Invite. Heiman, who injured his knee in the final football playoff game in November, returned to the lineup last week against Liberal and easily won his match at 160.

"He looks really good and should be fresh for the tournament," Moser said of Heiman, who finished third in the Welton a year ago at 152 and went on to a fifth-place finish at the state tournament. "We'll move (Anthony) Gardner (20-14) up to 170 and that should make us a little stronger overall."

The lower weights will once again be a strength for the Buffs, who tied for ninth in the team standings a year ago. Freshman Tevin Briscoe is enjoying a strong rookie season, posting a 21-2 record entering the tournament. Senior Anthony Calderon, last year's 6A state champion at 112 pounds, has posted a 21-3 record at 120 pounds and will be out to redeem himself from a non-placement finish here a year ago.

"Tevin and Anthony have been wrestling well all season," Moser said of his top wrestlers. "It will take somebody special to beat them, but we've got a number of special wrestlers who will be here. They'll have to be on top of their game to win."

Among the other top GCHS wrestlers are junior AJ Hurtado at 132-pounds (21-10), senior Tyson Phillis (25-8) at 138 pounds and sophomore Chris Adler (18-6) at 145 pounds.

"Everyone has stepped it up and improved through the season," Moser said. "This is the last big tournament for us before regional and state and we'll use it as practice for regional and state. You've got to win three matches in a row to place, and then put three good matches together. If you do that here, you've got a good chance to do that at state. That's what we're looking for."

It has been 19 years since the Buffaloes last walked out of The Garden with a team championship trophy, and while that would be a big feather in the Buffs' cap, Moser said a strong showing for his team would be a top five finish.

"Realistically, that's what we're shooting for," Moser said. "The key for us is to wrestle better on Friday than we did a year ago. We can't afford a bad start."

Some of the top southwest Kansas wrestlers also will be competing from Scott City, Ulysses and Hugoton.

Among the top grapplers are Scott City's Clay Mulligan and Luke Hayes. Mulligan, now at 132 pounds, was fifth a year ago and eventually won the 3-2-1A state title at 112 pounds last season. Hayes, also a state champ at 215, will be wrestling at 285 and was third at the Welton in 2011.

Ulysses' Tigers will bring Jason Perez (4A state champion), third a year ago, at 113-pounds and Armando Sandoval, sixth here a year ago, at 182 pounds. Hugoton's Patrick Weaver returns at 152 pounds after a fourth-place finish a year ago at 140 pounds.

In total, there will be 54 individual wrestlers who are ranked in their respective weight division and classification. One of those is Abilene's Kane Kelly at 182 pounds.

Kelly is the grandson of Rocky Welton, the former GCHS coach for whom the tournament is named. Welton now lives in Abilene and is expected to make the trip to Garden City to watch Kelly compete.

The first and second round championship rounds are scheduled to be completed by mid-afternoon Friday with the quarterfinals set to begin at approximately 3 p.m. Championship semifinals are tentatively set to begin at 7 p.m. Saturday's consolation bracket matches will start at 9 a.m. Consolation and championship finals will begin at 4 p.m.

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