When the Hayden High School wrestling team takes to the mats Saturday in Steamboat Springs, some familiar faces will be missing.
Most notable will be the absence of former coach John Svoboda who retired from coaching after last season. But also gone is 2004 standout wrestler Jake Doolin, who elected not to return to the team for his senior year. At last year's state tournament, Doolin lost to Hilltop Baptist wrestler Ryan Winters in the championship match and placed second at the state tournament.
"I'm not sure what he's thinking," the Tiger's new coach, Ty Zabel, said. "I've spent the last three weeks hoping he would come back, but it's his decision. I just hope he's comfortable with it and doesn't regret not coming out a few years down the road."
Although some of the wrestlers on this year's roster have changed, Zabel said what remains is the hunger for success that has made the Hayden wrestling program one of the most consistent in Routt County for more than a decade.
"I had hoped to get a few more kids out this year," Zabel said. "But I can't force them to come out. The ones who did show up for practice have been working hard and want to be a part of this team. As a coach, that's the type of wrestler you want."
Although this is Zabel's first year as head coach, he's not new to wrestling or to the Hayden program.
Zabel grew up in Steamboat Springs and competed under wrestling legend Carl Ramunno from 1982 to 1986. He also worked as an assistant under Svoboda from 1996 to 2001 and has acted as the head coach for the Hayden Middle School program in the past.
He knows most of the 12 wrestlers on this year's team personally and has coached several of them in the past.
"They all know me, so there's not going to be a huge learning curve," Zabel said. "I was hoping for 18 kids this fall, and I ended up with 12. It could have been better, but the kids who did come out are working hard for me."
The coach has spent the past three weeks trying to fit his wrestlers into the different weight classes and get an idea of which wrestlers will make the varsity lineup. He has a pair of seniors returning, including Randy Muhme who qualified for the state tournament last year. Muhme will be the Tiger's heavyweight this season, and his coach thinks the senior is primed to make another run at the state title.
Matt Marchbanks is the team's only other senior. He is expected to wrestle at 171 pounds.
Junior David Blair is expected to wrestle at 130 pounds, sophomore Tyler Manzanares will wrestle at 135 pounds and sophomore Dusty Jones should fall at 125 pounds or 130 pounds. All three are returning from last year's team.
New to the team will be Robert Culver. Zabel expects Culver to fall in at 189 or 215 pounds once he gets into wrestling shape. Freshmen Zed Wheelock and Jeff Dunn are battling for the varsity spot at 103 pounds.
"This weekend will be our debut," Zabel said. "But December is really about finding out how things fit together. Things will not get real serious until January when I know exactly who I've got and how they are going to fit on the team."
The Tigers are scheduled to travel to three meets before Christmas: Steamboat, Olathe and West Grand. The Tigers will host the Moffat County junior varsity team Dec. 9 as well as Soroco and Rangely in a triangular Dec. 17.
The team has nine scheduled events in January before heading to the regional meet Feb. 4 and 5 in Grand Junction. The state wrestling championships will take place Feb. 10 to 12 at the Pepsi Center in Denver.