Houston Mader and Mitch Doolin have been wrestling since they were fourth-grade peewee grapplers growing up in Hayden. Now high school upperclassmen, Mader and Doolin are both eyeing the statewide 140-pound ranks, each bent on returning to the state championships and each the top finisher from his school - Steamboat Springs and Hayden, respectively - last season.
The longtime former wrestling partners spent the downtime between rounds of Saturday's six-team Soroco Wrestling Tournament in Oak Creek joking around and chatting about moves, as if wanting to delay their inevitable clash as the 140/145-pound weight class' top two seeds.
"This will be my toughest match so far this season," Mader said before the match, a little reluctant to face a friend. "I don't really want to do it."
But when push finally came to shove, Mader, the senior, scored enough takedown points in the first two periods against Doolin, the junior, to go up 7-0. Mader held onto the lead through the third.
"It's always fun, but there's a little bit of pressure," Doolin said of the match. "Right at the beginning, I shouldn't have pushed him as much, because then he capitalized."
Steamboat coach Sean McCarthy cited Mader's improvements in seeing golden windows of opportunity and then "shutting the door."
"He's more aggressive than he's ever been," McCarthy said of Mader, who went 5-0 in the round-robin tournament to win his weight class, one spot ahead of Doolin. "He already has more pins this year than all of last year."
A few other weight classes came down to marquee final match-ups between cross-county rivals. Hayden's Coy Letlow and Soroco's Dennis Morgan both won matches by pin to set up an anticipated finale in the 189/215-pound class.
Morgan dominated the match, but it wasn't until the second period that he pinned Letlow in 2 minutes, 42 seconds.
"I was kinda mad I didn't stick him in the first, but he held strong," said Morgan, who returned for his first match after a partial MCL tear that sidelined him for most of the football season. "It feels good to be back."
It was also the first competition for Hayden wrestlers including Doolin, Mitchell VeDepo, Letlow and Jake Magee, now recovered from a long football season.
Hayden coach Ty Zabel was disappointed to see only one of those four wrestlers win their weight classification - Magee defeated West Grand's Eric Scholl, 4-1, to win the 152-pound class - but was at least pleased to see the Tigers take the overall team win.
"It's bittersweet that we won," Zabel said. "We've got a lot of work to do."
Moffat County's junior varsity followed Hayden in second, Battle Mountain took third, Soroco took fourth, Steamboat took fifth and West Grand took sixth.
The host Rams finished strong with all three of their returning state qualifiers winning their weight qualifications. Justin Iacovetto pinned his way through four rounds in the 112/119-pound class, capped by a 44-second final round match with Hayden's Scott Armbruster. Levi Gonzales followed suit with a fourth-round, 47-second pin over VeDepo to win the 125-pound class.
Other notable performances included Hayden freshman Treyben Letlow's tight 9-8 loss to Battle Mountain's Sergio Sandoval in the 160/171-pound finals, and Steamboat sophomore Derek Morris' impressive 5-0 run in the 135-pound class.
"It's like he's on a business trip out there every time - this year he's showing he belongs with that killer instinct," McCarthy said of Morris, who won three matches by pin.
Next week, all three schools will meet again at a challenging West Grand tournament, facing some staunch Eastern Plains opponents - or, as Soroco coach Doug Gates described the competition, "an excellent deal where we have to get after it."