MEEKER I Once upon a time, in small town in northwest Colorado, there lived a young man named T.J. Shelton, who had set goals for himself. Last weekend in front of more than 10,000 people, he accomplished them, while helping himself, his team and his community win a state championship, too.
“It was a fairy tale ending for everything,” Shelton, a senior at Meeker High School, said of his final Colorado state wrestling tournament, where he won his fourth individual state title, a feat only 18 other Colorado wrestlers have ever accomplished.
“It’s hard to describe, I have so much respect for the sport, it’s amazing to be a part of it all,” Shelton said. “I’ve put in a lot of hard work and now the withdrawals are nice.”
Shelton dominated the 2A, 170-pound bracket, pinning his way through the first three rounds and into his fourth state championship match. Shelton won his first three championship matches but his team had yet to win a title, finishing second last year by three points to Rocky Ford, which was picked to repeat in 2016 and Meeker was picked by On the Mat Rankings to finish second again.
“It had been a goal for us the past couple of years,” Shelton said of winning a team championship, but he said they are coached to “wrestle their best” and the team scores will take care of themselves, which is exactly what happened.
“Every wrestler contributed to our team score and we needed every point,” Meeker head coach J.C. Watt said of his first team title as a coach and the school’s eighth. “It truly was a team win!”
Not only did Shelton and all of his state-qualifying teammates contribute by winning at least one match, all 10 added at least one bonus point for a major decision or two bonus points for a pin.
In addition to Shelton, Casey Turner and Devon Pontine had both wrestled in state championship matches before and both finished second. But neither would be denied this year.
Chase Rule, also a workout partner of the three champions, finished fourth in the 160-pound bracket, scoring bonus points with a major decision in the quarterfinals, while classmates Sheridan Harvey (120) and Tyler Ilgen (285) both placed fifth, each scoring bonus points with a major decision and a pin, respectively, in their final matches of the season.
Sophomore Jacob Pelloni recorded two pins in the 106-pound bracket, freshman Tannen Kennedy recorded a pin at 126, junior Hunter Garcia won two matches in the 145-pound bracket, including one by major decision (eight points or more) and teammate Caleb Bradford pinned an opponent in the 220-pound bracket.
Meeker won 29 matches in the state tournament this year, earning bonus points in 21 of them (17 by pin), including bonus points in all three of Meeker’s championship matches.
“It was great to see all of our workout partners succeed,” Shelton said. “Chase came up big for us; he’s a big part of the reason we succeeded; we all beat up on each other. Chase beats on Casey, Casey beats on me, Devon beats on all of us and we all beat on Devon. We believe we have the toughest workout room in the state and you can’t beat having a tough wrestling room.”
Meeker was in the team race from the start, and after advancing eight into the quarterfinals, the Cowboys trailed Rocky Ford but took the lead after the quarterfinal round, where they advanced five (Turner, Rule, Shelton, Pontine and Ilgen) into the semifinals and the other five were still wrestling in the consolation brackets.
After the dust settled Friday night, Meeker advanced the three into the finals and the team was tied with Centauri for first place. But it would all change again Saturday before the championship finals.
Following the consolation and consolation placing matches, Meeker fell to third place, two points behind Centauri, which had four wrestlers in the finals and 5.5 points behind Rocky Ford, which also, like the Cowboys, had three wrestlers in the finals. Rocky Ford and Centauri would meet in the championship match at 106 and Shelton would wrestle Chris Martin from Centauri in his championship match.
Rocky Ford pinned Centauri in the 106-pound championship match and they won by technical fall in the 132-pound title match to give the Meloneers a 16-point lead, with a heavyweight yet to wrestle and all three Cowboys left to go.
Last year, Meeker had a one-point lead and Rocky Ford had one wrestler left to wrestle. He won and gave Meeker second place. But this year, Meeker would take the championship from Rocky Ford while they gained a new friend in Crowley County’s heavyweight Keith Dunagan.
“We did not talk about it but the kids knew we were in the team race,” coach Watt said. “After Rocky Ford won those first two matches with bonus points, it kind of seemed like there was less pressure.”
Turner had a familiar opponent in the finals, Hayden Harris of Norwood/Nucla. The two had wrestled each other five times already with Turner winning the first four, before losing 8-0 in the regional championship match the week before.
Turner had a bomb ticking inside since he lost last year in the state finals. The fuse was lit at the regional tournament and it exploded when the referee blew the whistle to start the second period of this year’s championship match. Turner earned a takedown in the first period and chose to start the second period on bottom.
“I chose down because I came to wrestle and I thought I could add to my lead,” Turner said.
Turner fired on the whistle and a fierce scramble started, then ended with Harris in a near-side cradle looking up at the bright lights of the Pepsi Center. The Meeker crowd erupted when the referee slapped the mat.
“It was unreal, looking up and seeing that whole section filled with black and gold, cheering,” Turner said. “It also made the team race seem possible, making it even more exciting.”
Shelton had an unfamiliar opponent and was already under tremendous pressure to win a fourth title, much less earn bonus points.
“I watched Casey pin his kid and I knew it was possible, but I was really pressured up,” Shelton said. “Coach told me to wrestle my match but bonus points would help. I told him I was pretty good at math and smiled at him.”
Shelton was taken down twice in the first period, but being down 4-2 at the end of the first period did not bother him.
“I was nerved up but not worried,” Shelton said. “I knew he wasn’t in as good a condition as I was, so I just had to make the race longer than he could handle.”
Shelton’s 16-7 win pulled the Cowboys to within five of Rocky Ford, with each team having one wrestler left to wrestle.
Pontine, who finished second as a sophomore and third last year, looked calm and focused before the finals.
“I was a little nervous and I knew I needed to get a pin,” Pontine said. “I had just watched T.J., win his fourth title and Casey pin his kid. I felt like I had some pretty big shoes to fill.”
Pontine would not be denied, picking his opponent off the mat twice, putting him on his back twice before earning a pin and giving his team a one-point lead.
“It was super exciting; words can’t even describe,” Pontine said. “I have worked for it for a long time and winning it was very emotional and felt so good. The team had a great weekend and everybody wrestled well. Winning the team title just put the icing on the cake. Seeing my best friend and brother T.J. win his fourth was amazing. I couldn’t have asked for better teammates or better friends.”
“What a great way for Devon to finish,” coach Watt said. “He is fun to watch, high action, lots of moves, he’s just a lot of fun to watch.”
“Casey had to overcome being beat 8-0, and, when all the pressure was on under the bright lights, he wrestled the best I’ve ever seen him wrestle,” coach Watt said. “And T.J., he’s worked hard and deserves his four championships.”
Across the board, everyone had good tournaments, everybody gets to enjoy the team title,” coach Watt said. “The community can be proud too; it certainly takes a community effort to have a successful program, so when the program does well the community can take pride in the program.”
And they lived happily ever after.