Hayden Meeker Cowboys wrestling coach Willy Theos isn't concerned about outsiders' opinions of his program.
Rankings and newspapers say the Cowboys are the team to beat on Saturday, when the Western Slope's Class 2A schools convene in Hayden for the league tournament.
Theos has five returning state qualifiers on his squad, but Meeker has two open weights, and he thinks Paonia, the team traveling the farthest this weekend, might be the one leaving with the championship plaque.
"The people that do the rankings, that doesn't count for a whole lot," Theos said. "I suppose on paper we might be a favorite, but I don't put a lot of stock in that. Paonia has some strong individuals, but they have good balance all the way through. They could win this tournament."
Saturday's league tournament is new territory for everyone involved. Hayden coach John Svoboda said it's been at least nine years since the Tigers have been involved in a tournament like this before the postseason.
Until Meeker, Rangely, Paonia and Grand Valley joined the league this year, the remaining four schools -- Hayden, Soroco, West Grand and North Park -- saw little reason to put one on.
"Before, it wasn't worth having a league tournament," Svoboda said. "Now it's a big deal."
However, some coaches feel the timing is inopportune.
Theos isn't ecstatic about having such a tournament one week before regionals, the meet that ultimately decides who makes the state tournament. If wrestlers get injured Saturday, there is little time to recover before the regional tournament on Feb. 14 and 15.
On the other hand, Saturday's league tournament offers a chance for wrestlers to solidify high seeds, considering many of these teams will meet again in regionals.
"There will be some good competition," Theos said. "The head-to-head record supercedes overall win percentage in seeding."
That's one reason Soroco senior Josh Iacovetto would have liked to have at least seen Meeker prior to this weekend.
Iacovetto is the defending state champion in 2A at 103 pounds. He moved up a weight class this year, as did many of the wrestlers he beat to win the title.
The Cowboys' Trent Randall moved up a weight class as well, and then his team dropped to 2A. That brings Randall, a state place-winner for the past two years at 103 pounds, and Iacovetto into the same bracket for the first time.
"Our team's doing really well," Iacovetto said. "But we have to wrestle extra tough (Saturday)."
Hayden senior Kelly Bruchez, still recovering from a thumb injury, is just pleased he'll be on home mats Saturday.
"We finally get to wrestle in front of the home crowd," he said.
The Class 2A Western Slope league tournament begins at 9 a.m. at Hayden High School. The tournament is scheduled to run straight through with a short break for lunch.
Admission is $6 for adults and $4 for students. A family pass can be purchased for $12.
An All-Conference medal will be awarded for first place and the runner-up will receive honorable-mention status. One outstanding wrestler will be recognized, and a Western Slope League Champion plaque will be given to the top team.