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RANGELY — The Panthers had seven qualifiers for the state wrestling tournament last season.
And six of those seven returned to this season’s team.
Those six same wrestlers will return to the state tournament — plus five of their teammates — after placing at last weekend’s qualifying tournament at Palisade.
“We’re sending 11 out of 13 (wrestlers),” said Coach Jeff LeBleu. “This is the most Rangely has ever taken.”
One of those six repeat state qualifiers, junior Travis Witherell, wrestled for the first time since breaking his hand in a freak accident several weeks ago. He lost in the finals to Norwood’s Hugh Hardman, who is a senior.
“He wrestled well,” LeBleu said of Witherell. “But not having wrestled the last two or three weeks (made a difference). Toward the end of the match, Hardman grabbed his hand and kind of twisted it, and he came off wincing a little bit. But he’s a tough kid.”
The cast on Witherell’s right hand was removed last week, just in time for the state-qualifying tournament.
“It was the week of the league tournament,” LeBleu said of Witherell’s injury. “Remember when we had that ice storm? He went to take the trash out at home and he slipped on the ice and fell and broke his hand.”
Despite missing several matches because of the injury, Witherell stayed in shape by working out on his own and with the team.
“He’s been working out every day,” LeBleu said. “He didn’t wrestle live. When we were drilling without partners, he did that. But when we were drilling with partners, he was running or doing pushups. He will be all right. He’s got a good work ethic.”
Witherell was all right at the state-qualifying tournament. LeBleu would expect nothing less of Witherell, who is one of the take-charge wrestlers on the Rangely team.
“He’s a team captain,” LeBleu said of Witherell, who was a running back on the Panther football team. “He’s one of the leaders.”
Witherell wasn’t the only one associated with the team who had a broken hand. LeBleu also broke his right hand working out with the team.
“Yeah, I broke mine in the wrestling room,” LeBleu said. “But the cast came off last Friday. I took it off with a pocketknife, just so it doesn’t look stupid when we go to state.”
This will be Witherell’s second trip to the state tournament. He was a runner-up as a sophomore at 135 pounds.
“He probably would have qualified (for state) as a freshman, but his dad died. He had a rough year,” LeBleu said. “He was still fifth at regions as a freshman.”
Witherell is wrestling at 140 this season.
“He probably could have wrestled at 135 again, but he did that (move up a class) for the team, because we wanted to fill out every weight this year,” LeBleu said.
Another Rangely wrestler, Devon Rose, was a state runner-up last season as well. He qualified again at 125 pounds. The other state qualifiers were Chance Peters at 103, Ryan Petty at 112, Blake Wanstedt at 119, Cole Barlow at 135, Ryan Cramer at 145, Christian Holcomb at 152, Keane Raley at 171, Mike Dillon at 215 and Kindal Cushman at 275.
LeBleu liked his team’s chances going into the regional tournament. The Panthers finished second at the league tournament, behind Paonia, but that was without Witherell.
“I knew our region would be tough, with Paonia and Norwood,” LeBleu. “I didn’t know if Norwood had enough guys to keep it close, but I knew Paonia and us did.”
Rangely finished second again behind Paonia.
After Witherell met Hardman again in the regional finals, LeBleu said they should meet again this weekend at the Pepsi Center in Denver.
“They should meet in the finals at state,” LeBleu said. “Travis likes to wrestle those kids. He doesn’t dodge them.”
LeBleu, a former Rangely wrestler himself, never made it to the state tournament as a participant.
“I wrestled all four years, but I didn’t go to state,” LeBleu said. “I couldn’t beat Tad Sullivan or Kai Turner (former Meeker wrestlers who were state qualifiers).”
But his team is making a habit of going to state. LeBleu has been coach of the Rangely wrestling team for about a decade, though he and his wife disagree on exactly how many years it has been.
“My wife says it’s been nine,” LeBleu said. “But I think it’s 10 or 11.”
However long it has been, it’s been a good run.