In each of his second through fifth seasons as head coach of the Garden City High School wrestling team, Carlos Prieto had to prepare his squad for being the hunted in Class 6A in Kansas.
That’s what comes with winning four consecutive state team championships, running from 2013 through 2016. Last season, though, the Buffs came up short in their bid for a fifth consecutive crown by placing third at the state championship.
Now, Prieto, starting his sixth season, and his coaching staff, are set to make another run at the state title and will begin that quest Friday and Saturday when the Buffaloes travel to Pine Creek, Colo. for their opening tournament. Team duals begin at 4 p.m. Friday and the tournament will conclude Saturday.
“When we talk about the ending to our last season, we felt like it didn’t end the way we wanted it to,” Prieto said earlier this week. “We’ve reflected on why we finished third instead of higher, and we felt like we lost a little focus there.”
With several wrestlers nursing injuries at the tail end of the season, and others not coming through at crunch time, the Buffs finished with 147.5 points at the state tournament, well back of champion Manhattan’s 170.0, but only one point behind runner-up Haysville-Campus at 148.5.
“We got away from doing some of the little things that we did when we won the championships,” Prieto said. “It left a bad feeling in my mouth and gut. Even though we took some hardware home (3rd), our expectations are to win a state (team) championship. We didn’t get that done.”
The other usual 6A powers also were among the top five finishers, with Olathe North (142.5) and Derby (130.0) rounding out that group.
Headlining the list of returners for Prieto will be sophomore Jacob Holt, who became the second freshman in school history to claim an individual gold medal last season with a title at 113 pounds. Holt (36-13) pinned Derby’s Kobe Grijalva at 5:06 in the third period to take the crown. Holt has moved up one weight division and will be competing at 120 pounds this season.
“We’re a young team, but we’ve got some talented kids and we’ve got some depth,” Prieto said. “The lineup we have for Pine Creek is most likely not the lineup you’ll see when we go to regionals (mid-February). There will be challenge matches each week, so the lineup will change quite a bit.”
The Buffs graduated two champions from a year ago — two-time gold medalist Jesse Nunez (182) and Zeke Herrera (195) — along with runner-up Benny Hernandez (285). So, in the upper weights, the Buffs have big shoes to fill. Rico Cherico (170), fourth last year, also graduated.
“This is one of our most inexperienced teams we’ve had in some time,” Prieto said. “But they’re very talented, and some of these freshmen are very good.”
Early season absentees include Silas Pineda (injury) and Wyatt McElroy (personal). Missing from the roster this year is senior Quinton LaPointe, who has medaled at the state in a prior season.
“We expect the kids we have to step in and compete,” Prieto said. “And we expect them to do well. By the end of the year, we’ll have a tough group, especially if there’s the buy-in to what we’re teaching them.”
So with a fresh approach to re-set the button for goals in the new season, Prieto said it was all about the team.
“I felt like we got away from what we did,” Prieto said of his first four seasons that resulted in team titles. “We didn’t really bond together as a team like we did in the past. Our focus in the preseason is team first. In order for us to win, we have to put the team aspect first. We have to set aside individual goals.”
The Buffs will likely have three dual matches Friday and then perhaps three or four on Saturday.
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