For one weekend every winter, the Northern Colorado Christmas Wrestling Tournament is the big boy on the block.
Technically, the two-day tournament, which has featured as many as 62 teams from four states takes center stage, holds the spotlight and is the biggest and most prestigious sneak peek to any Colorado high school state tournament of any sport.
Now, with the Budweiser Events Center to call home, the tournament, in its 14th year, has room to grow, but is no threat to the prestige that goes with some of the best-known high school wrestling tournaments in the nation — The Beast of the East (Va); Reno Tournament of Champions (Nev.); Iron Man Invitational (Pa.); Clovis “Doc” Buchanan Invitational (Calif.) or the Virginia Duals.
However, Colorado’s prize jewel is nothing to sniff at.
The list of champions and recipients of Outstanding Wrestler awards is a who’s who among some of the best wrestlers in Colorado’s history, including Coronado’s Henry Cejudo, who won the 2005 title at 125 pounds for Coronado. Cejudo, who lived and trained at the Olympic Training Center, won the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics.
“If you want to finish in the top five of this tournament as a team, you better have a strong lineup,” Greeley West coach Jim Martinez said. “I really think you need five or six kids to place to win this thing. It’s doable with less than that, but not likely.”
Greeley West was the original host of the tournament in its first season — 1999 — when the field was less than a half-dozen teams.
Adams City was the first team champion, but has yet to repeat. The 2000 team champion — Standley Lake — joins Legacy, Loveland and Coronado as the only teams to twice take home the winning hardware.
Northridge is the only Weld team to claim a title — in 2007 — when the field grew to 63 teams and the Grizzlies had three individual champions — Nick McCorkel (135 pounds); Easton Ramirez (140) and 285-pounder Tim Saucedo.
The Grizzlies finished that season as the Class 4A state champions.
Windsor, which has won back-to-back 4A team titles, hasn’t won a NCCT crown since 2005.
“We’ve never won this since I’ve been at Windsor,” Wizard coach Monte Trusty said.
The Wizards did claim the team title in 2005 with just one individual champion — 189-pounder Josh Larson.
“The competition this year is the best I’ve seen,” Trusty added. “Especially because Pomona was added to the field. You look at the teams here and every team that’s a contender for a state title in their classification is here.”
Under Trusty’s direction, the Wizards finished second to Coronado in 2010 and were third last season behind Pine Creek and Discovery Canyon before going on to win the Class 4A state titles.
Team titles are at a premium, but the tough road to claim one is unanimously welcomed by coaches.
“I think it’s a tougher tournament to win than the state tournament,” Brighton coach Tom Wagner said. “In my opinion, this is a tougher tournament than the TOR (Top Of The Rockies, hosted by Centaurus).
“In this tournament, if you fall into the consolation bracket, you’d better get ready to wrestle,” Wagner said.
A wrestler who loses in the second or third rounds that falls into consolation action needs to win seven more matches to climb all the way back to third place.
“That’s a bitter pill at his tournament,” longtime Northglenn coach Brian Hufford said. “You really have to refocus, stay optimistic and figure it’s the midway point of the season and you can benefit from this tournament.”
Eaton coach Dan Lewis thinks the brutal consolation bracket rounds could be used as a strong recruiting tool for college coaches.
“That shows if a wrestler can face adversity, and I think shows what a true champion is made of,” Lewis said. “Now, to win this thing as a team, you’d better have six or seven solid kids who finish in the top three — at least.”
Class 5A Pomona emerged as this year’s team champion with 228.5 points, taking the lead on the second and final day of competition.
Discovery Canyon was making a run to win its first NCCT title, but has made the tournament a must on its schedule.
“This is a tough tournament and the wrestling is of a high quality,” said Discovery Canyon coach Ron Sukle, a former head coach at Highland.
“We use this tournament as a gauge for what we have to do in the next two months and take the next step,” Sukle added. “We just came back from Southwest Duals (Rio Rancho, N.M.) and this tournament is just as tough. We want to be here every year.”
Arvada West coach Mark Schmidt, who coached state title teams at Centaurus and Broomfield, called the NCCT “a must for everybody,” but added “the biggest difference in this tournament and the Top Of The Rockies is that there’s less fluff in a lot of brackets at TOR. “You’d better be plenty tough though if you’re going to win this thing.”
Greeley Central coach Eric Penfold, who for the first time doesn’t have a wrestler advancing into championship-bracket matches, said that the NCCT is a wake-up call for a lot of wrestlers.
“When you get to the quarterfinal and semifinal matches ... those are men wrestling in those matches and in the finals,” whose last champion was in 2007 when Brice Wolf won the 171-pound title.
Greeley Central’s other NCCT champions have been Matt Sens (275 pounds, 2001) and three-time state champion Tony Mustari (103, 2002; 112, 2003; and 119, 2004, outstanding wrestler).
Weld’s only other three-time NCCT champions is former Valley wrestler Curtis Salazar at 112 pounds in 2002; 135 pounds in 2004 and 145 pounds in 2005 when he was named as the outstanding wrestler; and Greeley West’s Joseph Martinez (103 pounds in 2008, 119 in 2009 and at 135 pounds in 2010).
Weld County has had at least one champion every year.
Former Fort Lupton three-time state champion Dale Shull is one of only two wrestlers to claim four NCCT titles, claiming titles in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008.
The only other four-time NCCT champion was Loveland’s Tyler Graff, winning titles in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. Graff is an NCAA Division I All-American competing at the University of Wisconsin.
“The caliber of wrestling at this tournament is the best anyone from Colorado can get before the Christmas break, and probably the best all year,” Wagner said. “I think this is the toughest tournament in Colorado to win.”
“We were Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde tonight. They took us out of our game in the first half, and then we adjusted. We attacked the basket and even ran a pick-and-roll.” \n
— Tory Hanson, Greeley West boys basketball coach, after the Spartans 56-53 win against Rocky Mountain on Tuesday