Eagle Valley and Battle Mountain wrestlers qualify for state tournament
Braiden Ward, Cole Good and Grady Devins all punch their state tickets on a weekend which saw Battle Mountain host the girls West Region championship
Eagle Valley wrestling coach Melvin Valdez has a unique metaphor for the championship-season physiological peaking process.
“I’ve always called my wrestlers popcorn kernels, and they all pop at a different time during the season,” he said. “Braiden is popping at the right time.”
The Devils’ Braiden Ward and Cole Good, along with Battle Mountain’s Grady Devins all qualified for the 4A state wrestling tournament at Ball Arena on Feb. 16-18 after placing in the top four at last Saturday’s 4A Region 3 tournament in Durango. Ward and Devins were second in the 120 and 106-pound weight classes, respectively, and Good was fourth in the 126-pound division.
“I hadn’t seen him wrestle that well all year,” Valdez said about Ward, who started in the sport as a 5-year-old duking it out with Devins in Valdez’s Bald Eagle wrestling club. After starting his sophomore campaign briefly in 2021-22, however, Ward quickly decided to walk away.
“Being a freshmen, he was probably expecting to learn crazy fancy moves and stuff like that and he kind of realized we do the basics. Basics wins championships,” Valdez said.
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“So I think he did a lot of growing up and I think the year was probably good for him to take off. He realized, ‘you know what, I am a good wrestler, I could do that.’ The maturity for sure has changed since he’s been back as far as being a leader and captain.”
It paid off on the mat last Saturday, too. Despite missing a season’s worth of competitions as a sophomore to improve his ranking, Ward clawed his way to the No. 3 region seed on the strength of several pins and regular season wins over 4A Region 3 opponents.
“Having that break, you have to do a lot of catching up to do,” Valdez said. “He’s stepped up and worked hard in the room and said ‘hey I’ve got this goal to get here, I’ve got this goal to win.’ And so far he’s reached those goals that he has.”
Ward won a 7-6 decision over Pueblo South’s Antonia Martinez in the semifinal before falling to Pueblo County’s Wyatt Faris 6-2 in the championship.
“Braiden wrestled like he’s never wrestled before,” said Vasquez, who had to watch Good pull out a clutch performance to qualify for his second-career state tournament.
A loss in the second round of a stacked 126-pound weight class (featuring four state-ranked athletes), the sophomore needed to defeat No. 1-seeded Daniel Apodaca — who was beaten in the semifinals by Chris LaLonde — in the wrestle-back to place fourth.
“We told Cole, ‘hey wrestle your match, don’t be playing catch up; let him try to catch you.'” Valdez said of his advice before the consolation fight. “And that’s what he did. He just wrestled for the win himself. He shot in and wasn’t waiting for anything and just took control of it and that worked for him for sure.”
For Battle Mountain, the weekend was somewhat bittersweet. While Devins navigated his way to the 106-pound title round, punching his first-ever ticket to Ball Arena with a second-place finish, his teammate, senior Tyson Vasquez, would end his career finishing sixth.
“It’s a very tough region,” Husky coach Angelo Vasquez said of the tournament which contained the state’s No. 3, No. 5, No. 7 and No. 9-ranked squads.
“If anyone knows about wrestling down in Pueblo county, it’s a religion and if you can beat a kid from any of those schools, you have a shot. It was a drag-out, knock-out kind of tournament.
In his first round match, Vasquez said Devins battled through adversity.
“He figured it out,” Vasquez said of the eventual 9-7 win. “He got thrown to his back a couple times and had to wrestle out of some really bad positions to take the win.” In the semifinal, Devins was masterful in putting away Roosevelt’s Peyton Wright 7-3, but he was stymied yet again in the final by Montrose’s Aaden Gonzales, who collected three-straight pins to claim the title.
“We met him a couple times before and we just haven’t been able to figure him out,” said Vasquez.
For Tyson, the sixth-place finish may simply fuel the fire for this summer’s U.S. Marine Corps/USA Wrestling Junior Nationals from July 14-22 in Fargo, North Dakota.
“This wasn’t our end goal,” the coach said regarding Tyson, who will target a top-3 finish at the Colorado freestyle and greco-roman state championships to earn a roster spot on the team heading to Fargo. “Sometimes you get a little more hungry when something like this happens.”
The departing senior, who may wrestle next year at Concordia-Nebraska with his older brother, Jeremiah, will leave a hole on the roster.
“Just like every senior who leaves, you lose leaders. You lose someone other kids looks up to,” Vasquez said. “Especially for him, being my son, I’m not going to be able to hang out with him.”
For Coach Vasquez, Devins is the 18th state qualifier he has mentored. Together, Devins and Tyson are the 28th and 29th regional placers for the program since 2014.
Huskies host West Region girls wrestling championships
While the boys battled things out in Durango, the girls West Region saw 23 teams and well-over 200 wrestlers hit the mats at Battle Mountain High School. Hillary Gutierrez and Ashley Misch competed in the regional tournament for the Huskies, falling just two matches shy of the consolation semifinals.
“It was a great opportunity for our county to have a regional tournament like that,” Vasquez said. “Everybody knows about boys wrestling around here — Battle Mountain and Eagle Valley have such a strong boys tradition and the girls were sort of not getting the exposure that they deserved.”