The Rocky Welton Invitational has always had its special place on the schedule for the Garden City Buffaloes wrestling team.

Traditionally held the final weekend of January, the tournament is the last big tune-up for the Buffs in preparation for a couple of February duals, and then the Class 6A regionals and eventually the Class 6A state tournament the third weekend of February.

It’s the final big measuring stick for the Buffs’ coaching staff, perhaps a snapshot into how the Buffs will perform at the upcoming regionals and state, which is always the main focus of the grueling three-month schedule.

So when the Buffs placed ninth Saturday at the 2018 edition of the Welton, celebrating its 60th anniversary, coach Carlos Prieto understands what his team is looking at down the stretch run of the current season.

“We’ve got a lot of things to work on, that’s for sure,” Prieto said after watching his beleaguered team battle gamely over two days. “Not only are we beat up physically, but I think it’s taken a mental toll as well. We’ve got to get this team back to thinking of the team goals first. But this tournament will do that to you.”

The Buffs finished with 106.5 points (Goddard won with 226.5), keeping GCHS on the humble road. Yet, the Buffs were the highest Class 6A school in the team chase.

The Buffs, for just the fourth time in the last 11 years, failed to put a wrestler into a championship match (2009, 2011 2012 and this year).

But realistically, it’s always been a challenge for a Garden wrestler to make the finals at the Welton, now generally regarded as the toughest tournament in Kansas.

Since 2008, the Buffs’ best efforts came in 2010 and 2014, when they placed three in the finals and only Michael Prieto and Tevin Briscoe captured titles (2014-15). Prieto was a four-time finalist, but came away with just two wins.

“Aside from the Kansas City Stampede (mid-December), this is the toughest field we see,” Prieto said afterwards Saturday night. “We just hope the kids will respond well and continue to work hard.”

The top finisher for the Buffs was freshman Trey Medina, placing fourth at 145 pounds while compiling a 4-2 mark over the two days. Medina (28-14) had three dramatic wins, getting a 4-2 tiebreaker, a 6-5 decision and a 6-4 sudden victory decision.

“I thought Trey had a really good tournament, and he learned a lot against some very tough competition,” Prieto said. “We had some other kids who also wrestled well, so we had some positives.”

Sophomore Silas Pineda was fifth at 113 pounds, winning his final match on Saturday, 3-0. Despite final match losses, sophomore Jacob Holt, senior Kaj Perez and freshman Isaiah Urias placed sixth, earning medals in their weight groups.

Pineda posted a 4-2 mark, Holt (3-3), Perez (4-3), Urias (4-3) to complete the top finishes for the Buffs.

“Silas and Isaiah wrestled some really good matches against some really good kids,” Prieto said.

But with no wrestler at 182 or 195, and none on the horizon, Prieto knows the remaining group he has will have to improve, and do so quickly, if they are to make a deep run in the postseason this time around.

For Pineda, who had reached Friday’s semifinals before losing 8-1 to eventual champion Isaiah Gamez of La Junta, Colo., the tournament was a proving ground of his improvement from his freshman season.

“I think the first half-day (Friday) went well,” Pineda said. “I could’ve done better on my feet, and then I think sitting around much of the day (Saturday) and not doing much really affected the way I wrestled.”

Pineda said he will be working on his moves when he is on the bottom, learning how to get up better and not staying in one place.

“I’ve got to get more torque in my turns,” he said. “Improving when I’m on my feet is where I need to work the most.”

The Buffs will be back on the mat at 7 p.m. Thursday when they host Hays in their final Western Athletic Conference dual at The Garden. They currently are 2-1. They host Colby on Feb. 8 in the final regular season match. The 6A super regional will be Feb. 16-17 and the state tourney is slated for Feb. 23-24 in Wichita.