Editor's Note: This is the fifth in a series of articles highlighting the Top 10 sports stories of 2017 as voted upon by The Telegram Staff. The No. 6 story profiles the Garden City wrestling team's state tournament effort where three Buffaloes won individual golds — Jesse Nunez, Zeke Herrera and Jacob Holt. This is the story of how the two seniors and a freshman won their respective gold medals in late February:
PARK CITY — In each of the four Class 6A state team championships from 2013 to 2016, the Garden City Buffaloes produced at least two individual champions, either multiple runners-up or third-place finishers.
On Saturday, the final day of this year’s state tournament, the Buffs’ four-year reign as team champions came to an end, but the three individual titles took a little sting out of the team’s attempt to make it five in a row.
There was one final heartbreak, though, when 285-pounder Benny Hernandez saw his dreams of a state title dashed with a 3-2 ultimate tiebreak loss to Wichita Northwest’s Joseph Gilbertson.
The first individual title came from freshman Jacob Holt, who earned his gold medal with a pin of Derby’s Kobe Grijalva at the 5:06 mark of the third period, just 54 seconds away from the end of regulation when the score was tied at 5-all (See related story).
The remaining two individual crowns came from stalwart seniors Jesse Nunez at 182 pounds and 195-pounder Zeke Herrera, both with drama-filled one-point triumphs.
Nunez earned his second straight gold medal (last year at 170) when he edged past Aryus Jones of Junction City with an 8-7 decision and then Herrera followed up with a 7-6 decision of Zach Bowen of Campus.
For Nunez, the win was for individual and team pride after the Buffs, who finished third in the team race with 147.5 points (Manhattan won with 170 points and Campus second with 148.5 points), were mathematically out of the team title chase.
“Coach just said that for us to go out and wrestle for ourselves and make everyone proud,” Nunez said afterward. “I wasn’t really nervous because I think winning last year made it easier to be ready.
“There was some emotion, but I was able to give this a free shot.”
Nunez’ match was a see-saw affair, with him leading 3-2 after the first period and then up 5-4 to start the third. He trailed 5-6 early in the third, then went up 8-6 with a takedown at the 1:08 mark. He gave Jones an escape point with one second left in the match.
“I’d wrestled him in eighth grade but not since then,” Nunez said of Jones. “He’s got a funky style and I know a lot about what he likes to do. That helped. Getting this title is like icing on the cake.”
Herrera, who once considered quitting the sport at the end of his freshman season, now has a runner-up, a third and his precious and prized gold medal.
“There’s been a lot of hard work for this,” Herrera said after his slender win. “He (Bowen) was really tough but I was able to give him a good shot and score.”
It was eerily similar to one week earlier at the qualifying regional in Hutchinson when Herrera prevailed by a 7-5 sudden victory (first overtime period) decision.
“I was just trying to control as much as I could,” Herrera said. “I was a little concerned about stalling, but I made sure I could circle him and he couldn’t get to my leg.”
Herrera and Bowen were tied at 2-all after the first and the Buffs’ senior was up 5-4 at the end of the second. He took a 7-4 lead with an early reversal in the third and then Bowen scored an escape, making it 7-5 with a little more than a minute remaining. Bowen got one more point just before time elapsed.
“I’ve just learned since my freshman year to not quit, never give up,” Herrera said. “You’ve got to finish what you start and can’t give up on anything.”
The loss for Hernandez was especially emotional as the Buffs were trying to establish a record number of individual titles in a single state tournament.
When the Buffs won the 1997 state team title, they also garnered three individual gold medals — Richard Janas (125), Rob Mouser (130) and Billy Blackwell (145).
But it wasn’t to be for Hernandez to bring home the final gold. The two heavyweights went toe-to-toe, having a scoreless tie after one period, Gilbertson leading 1-0 after the second and the score knotted at 1-all at the end of regulation.
Each scored a point on an escape in their respective 30-second overtime periods from the bottom position, and then Gilbertson got the benefit of scoring the first points of the match to earn his choice to take the bottom position in the ultimate tiebreak period.
Just seconds into the tiebreak, it was Gilbertson who was able to break away and score the winning point.
For the Buffs’ head coach, the ending was just as disheartening in many ways as seeing the team’s four-year reign come to an end.
“The three golds, that’s a positive,” Prieto said. “We wanted four. I feel for Benny. He wrestled his butt off and then some.”
So after four straight team titles, they settled for third.
“A lot of teams would be happy with third, but that’s not our standard,” Prieto said. “We’ll go back and evaluate everything we did and come back ready again next year. I’m proud of the kids. They wrestled their tails off and we’ll take away the positives.”
The biggest positive of all was that many of the lower weight wrestlers, including champion Holt and sixth-place medalist Silas Pineda will return for the 2018 season.
Through the four-year reign as Class 6A state team champions, the Buffaloes had thrived on their success in the consolation bracket.
Nearly every one of the four team trophies came by virtue of unbridled success on the backside of the tournament bracket.
But it was there that the Buffs’ four-peat came to an end after Saturday morning’s success in the cross-bracketing matches. From then on, the consolation bracket was not kind to the Buffs.
With six wrestlers in the consolation bracket at various stages, the Buffs needed nearly all of them to come through and get to medal-round matches.
Silas Pineda at 106 pounds, who had won two Friday matches to reach the semis before losing, lost both of his Saturday matches to place sixth. His consolation semifinal loss came at the hands of Kai Rhea of Campus, a wrestler he had beaten 7-2 in the regional semis the week before.
Rico Cherico at 170 pounds, also pulled through for the Buffs. Cherico finished his senior season with a 4-1 loss to Gavin Carter of Topeka-Washburn Rural in the third-place match at 170-pounds. In his first full varsity season and initial state tourney, Cherico compiled a 27-14 won-loss record.
But things had started off with a ray of sunshine for the Buffs at the Saturday start of consolation matches, winning four of the five early bouts.
From there, however, things went downhill for the Buffs as they struggled with numerous close matches, most resulting in losses.
The earlier domino fall began with Curtis Near at 145 pounds, who lost his first consolation round match 4-3. In the consolation quarters, the match that determines whether a wrestler will be in the medal round, Andres Sanchez, Kai Perez and Quinton LaPointe all suffered tough losses to end their tournament participation.