The Soroco High School wrestling team was all ears Wednesday evening as Jay Whaley outlined his plans and rules. Whaley had been an assistant coach with the team for four years but was pressed into service as its head coach for the upcoming season when no one could be found to fill the job on a permanent basis. Wednesday marked the first day winter sports teams in Colorado were allowed to practice.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

The Soroco High School wrestling team was all ears Wednesday evening as Jay Whaley outlined his plans and rules. Whaley had been an assistant coach with the team for four years but was pressed into service as its head coach for the upcoming season when no one could be found to fill the job on a permanent basis. Wednesday marked the first day winter sports teams in Colorado were allowed to practice.

Longtime Soroco assistants step up to help keep program afloat

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Dusty banners with browned edges and faded colors hang high in a forgotten gymnasium at Soroco High School.

According to a band of dedicated Rams, they're a testament to what the wrestling program can be, what it was and what it will be.

The program turned a new page Wednesday when coach Jay Whaley addressed his team.

"We agreed to take over when they couldn't find a coach this year," he said, kneeling with his feet underneath him on a cracked and crevassed but freshly cleaned maroon wrestling mat.

Everyone - two other coaches in on his plan and six mostly inexperienced wrestlers - stared at him with wide eyes.

Whaley continued: "We didn't want the program to die."

The characterization may seem extreme for a program that sent three wrestlers to Denver for the 2A state wrestling tournament only nine months ago. Two of those Rams even made the state finals.

Soroco has two state championships to its name, the most recent coming in 1995. It has finished runner-up six times.

Former coach Doug Gates left after the season, however. Two of Soroco's state wrestlers graduated, and its returning ace, two-time state runner-up Justin Iacovetto, transferred to Paonia.

The remaining wrestlers were short on experience and entirely without a coach. An exhaustive search though candidates for teaching positions yielded no results, and when school started in August, the wrestling program still was leaderless.

The thought of the program's end was unconscionable for Whaley and his assistants.

"It was a real possibility the program might have died," 16-year assistant Travis Bruggink said. "It probably still is a possibility."

Whaley and Bruggink stepped up and volunteered to fill in for the season, helping give wrestling in Soroco a reprieve. Richard Strait - who has two sons on the team - joined them.

All three hold full-time jobs elsewhere in the county, and all three said they'd have trouble making every practice and every meet.

Still, the trio may be just the thing the suddenly dilapidated program needs. They bring more credentials than was likely to be found in any new teacher. Whaley and Bruggink qualified for state while wrestling for Soroco during their own high school stints, Bruggink returning home with two championships at 146 pounds.

Strait logged several years of high school wrestling and has helped coach his sons in the sport for years.

"If you go by success at state, this has been the most successful program for Soroco sports," Whaley said. "Yeah, there is a strong tradition, and we didn't want to lose it."

Six of the nine Routt County high school winter sports teams who opened their seasons Wednesday did so with new coaches. Luke DeWolfe took over for Kelly Meek, coaching the Steamboat Springs boys basketball team. Former Hayden Superintendent Mike Luppes took charge of the Tigers boys team, and Eric Hamilton stepped in to coach the school's girls squad.

David Bruner started his stint as the Soroco girls basketball coach with a 6:45 a.m. practice, while Shane Yeager got his first glance as a head coach for the Steamboat wrestling team just after school ended.

Few did so as solemnly as Whaley and his assistants. Wrestling is alive in south Routt County, and the Rams new coaching staff intends to keep it that way.

"This is the best sport in the world," Whaley said, aggressively mopping the mats before the season's first practice. "We weren't going to let the program go away. That's why all of us are here."

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