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There will be only two Meeker wrestlers competing at this weekend’s state tournament.
And even though the program has been down the past few years, Meeker High School has a tradition of being a wrestling powerhouse.
The list of state champions and state placers hanging in the high school gym is impressive. Among the names of state champs are two from the Gutierrez family.
The family has a long history of wrestling. Between them, brothers Roman, Bobby and Joe won three individual state championships, with the middle brother, Bobby, winning two in 1978 and 1979 and the youngest brother, Joe, winning one in 1981. Bobby won his first state title at 112 pounds, and his second one at 119 pounds, when he was named Outstanding Wrestler of the Year at the state tournament. Joe was a state champion his senior year at 98 pounds.
But it all started with oldest brother Roman, who advanced to state as a sophomore and again as a senior at Meeker and then went on to become a two-time Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference champion and an All-American his senior year at Western State College of Colorado in Gunnison.
“He didn’t win a state championship (in high school), but I wouldn’t have won either of mine, and Joe wouldn’t have won his, without his help,” Bobby said of his older brother.
Roman gave the younger brothers something to aspire to, and he pushed them toward reaching the goal of becoming a state champion.
“I ended up third (in the state) my junior year, so I knew I couldn’t match what Bobby had done, but I had already done better than Roman had, so I just figured my goal was to win a gold medal my senior year,” Joe said. “That was my main focus.”
The two younger brothers started wrestling when they were in grade school. Again, Roman set the example.
“Roman played basketball his freshman year (of high school), and then he went out for wrestling his sophomore year,” Joe said. “Once they talked him into it, it just kind of evolved from there.”
“Roman is four years older than me,” Bobby said. “He kind of blazed the trail. In the sixth grade, I had a scar on my nose from a rug burn (from wrestling against Roman). It was kind of a year-round deal; it never really healed. Roman was a big motivator. He was a good mentor. He would keep me in line.”
The family’s wrestling tradition continues. For the past 27 years, Roman has been the wrestling coach at Moffat County High School in Craig, and Joe is in his first year of coaching at Meeker, where he is trying to rebuild the program. He knows it will take time to return the program to where it used to be.
“I knew it would be at least another two or three years before we can be real competitive,” Joe said. “I’m hoping sooner. But you’ve got to start with the pee wee program, all the way up to the high school, and get everybody excited about (wrestling) again.”
Bobby is confident the wrestling program will return to its glory days. He was a member of the team that won a state championship in his senior season, so he knows what it takes to win.
“That was Meeker’s first state championship in anything,” Bobby said of the 1979 team. “They had come close a number of times.”
The community embraced the school’s wrestling team as it developed into a state-championship caliber program.
“When I was a sophomore, when the ‘79 team won it, it was just neat because the crowd that followed us was the big thing,” Joe said. “You’d go to a dual meet, and it would just be packed with Meeker people. You’d go to a state tournament, and there would be a whole section solid of just Meeker fans. It made it exciting to go out there and be a part of that.”
With the school’s tradition in wrestling, expectations for the team’s success are always high. Seven state wrestling titles will do that.
“Meeker won a championship in 2005, but the numbers have been down (in recent years),” Bobby said. “I guess the good thing is it’s considered down when you’re not winning a state championship. That’s an indication of where the program is. We need to create an interest again, and hopefully Joe does that. There’s a lot of knowledge (about wrestling) in the Meeker area and people want to see it succeed. Hopefully we’ll start winning state championships again.”
All of the brothers credit Bill Turner, the former Meeker wrestling coach, now retired, with taking the program to a new level and being a positive influence on their lives.
“Coach Turner was there for 14 years, and (Meeker) won the league all 14 years,” Bobby said. “His first year as head coach was when Roman was a senior. Coach Turner was a huge influence. He was a very good coach. He made sure you paid the price. Paying the price, that was his deal. The price was a lot of hard work, a lot of practice.”
Turner knew from experience what it took to be a champion.
“Coach Turner was a state champion from Rangely,” Joe said. “Once he got here, he got things going. And he passed that on to Mike Tate (another former Meeker wrestling coach), and he had a real successful program.”
Paul Starbuck was coach when Roman was a sophomore, and Turner was an assistant. He took over as head coach for Roman’s senior season in 1975.
“Coach Starbuck cared a lot about the kids,” Roman said. “And when Coach Turner stepped in, it was like adding new fuel into the fire.”
After playing basketball his freshman year, it was Turner who talked Roman into giving wrestling a try.
“Coach Turner kind of pointed out to me how tall my parents were and that I probably didn’t have much future in basketball,” Roman said. “I was real fortunate to have Coach Turner as a coach. He was the one who more or less got me into wrestling in college.”
At the recommendation of Turner, Roman was hired as the coach at Moffat County after graduating from college.
“Craig was looking for a head coach, and they offered the job to Coach Turner, but he said he wasn’t interested,” Roman said. “But he told them he had some snot-nosed kid who would be good.”
Roman has been the coach at Moffat County ever since. He also teaches third-grade at an elementary school in Craig.
“This job came up, and I was fortunate enough to get it,” Roman said of being the Moffat County wrestling coach. “Things have worked out well for me here. We have the most dual wins in the state of Colorado. We’ve got that record now.”
Turner was a father figure for the Gutierrez boys and other Meeker wrestlers.
“He just influenced so many kids,” Joe said. “A lot of kids, who probably would have been in trouble, he just kind of took them under his wing, and he either made them into champions, or he made them into a better person.”
Joe also had his two older brothers to keep him in line. He specifically remembers Christmas break his junior year as a turning point for him as a wrestler.
“They put me through their training session,” Joe said. “They just made me believe in myself. I had been content with being a JV wrestler. But they gave me the attitude I could be better, by putting the time and effort into it, and that’s what I did. It takes a lot of intensity and desire to win that gold medal.”
It used to be, Bobby said, competition was fierce among team members who wrestled in head-to-head matches to see who would make the lineup.
“Some of our toughest matches were to get on the varsity,” Bobby said. “Joe had a kid, one of his best friends, a kid he couldn’t beat. So we (Roman and Bobby) had kind of a come-to-Jesus meeting with Joe. Pat Sullivan, who used to pack us around to different tournaments, had a mat in his basement. So we took Joe down there during Christmas break, a couple of times a day, and worked him over. And he got his mind right.”
Joe is hoping to pass on to his wrestlers that same mindset and work ethic it takes to become a champion. And, like his brothers did for him, he’s leading by example.
“I won’t ask them (members of the wrestling team) to do anything I won’t do,” Joe said. “Whether it’s lifting weights, running, getting on the mat, whatever. I’m real excited about these younger kids, especially. Just the few we have, you can see it in their eyes. They want to get better, and they have improved. You look at them now, and they’ve improved by leaps and bounds.”
Community support and involvement will play a role in rebuilding the school’s wrestling tradition, Joe said.
“That’s one thing Meeker has always had,” Joe said. “There’s all this knowledge and talent in this town and the people who are willing to give back to the sport. Coach Turner always welcomed that, and that’s what I’m trying to do now. To utilize the talent we have here and build successful wrestlers.”
The numbers are down from when the Gutierrez brothers wrestled. There are 13 wrestlers on this season’s team. It used to be there would be two or three times as many boys out for wrestling, Joe said.
“A lot of it is just society,” Joe said of why there aren’t as many wrestlers as there used to be. “You know, wrestling is so demanding. It’s one-on-one. There’s no one else to blame. When you go out there on the mat, you’re there by yourself. A lot of kids today can’t handle that type of pressure. You have to have that mental toughness. It’s not a sport for everybody.”
This has been a humbling season for Joe and his wrestling team. They have taken their lumps, as the program is trying to rebuild. But his older brothers are pulling for him.
“Joe’s program is down a little bit now, but I feel you give him two or three years, and it will be like the old days,” Roman said. “It may take a few years, but if they hang in there with him, it will be a real good program again.”
Competing against older brother Roman’s Moffat County team earlier this season, the Meeker wrestlers lost 63-12. But Rose Gutierrez, the brothers’ 84-year-old mother, couldn’t have been prouder of her sons. She wore a shirt that supported both teams.
“She said she was going to be quiet, but my wife said she was cheering for Joe’s team,” Roman said. “I guess she was cheering for the underdog. We’ll let it slide this year.”
“That was fun,” Joe said. “Of course, I wanted it to be more competitive. I had coached against (Roman) as an assistant, but it was completely different as a head coach. I think she (Rose) was just proud both of us were out there. She is definitely a wrestling fan. That was one thing when I was wrestling, I could always hear Coach Turner, I could hear Roman and Bobby, if they were there, and I could always hear my mom. Even at the state tournament, I could always hear her voice.”
Bobby agreed, saying, “Mom is way into it. She has been watching us for 40 years, I guess. She’s been a part of it. She understands the benefits (of wrestling).”
Those benefits include learning the importance of hard work and mental toughness. But one of the other lasting rewards is the camaraderie with other wrestlers.
“The best thing out of it is the friendships,” Bobby said. “My workout partners 30 years ago, are still my best friends today. That’s the cool thing.”