John Russell's sports column appears Mondays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs When I walked into Steamboat Springs High School Tuesday night, I couldn’t help but be surprised. I don’t cover as much wrestling as I used to, but it seems like I’ve covered at least one home wrestling match the week before the holiday break for as long as I can remember.
In the past, there have been times when I’ve shown up to half-full stands, and more forfeits and exhibitions than matches — the type of nights that made me wonder about the future of wrestling in our town.
But on this night last week something seemed different. I noticed it the minute I walked into the gym. There were a few more fans in the stands, a little more excitement buzzing through the room and a little jump in the Steamboat Sailors' step as the team entered for the match against Moffat County.
Much of the credit goes to former wrestler and current coach Shane Yeager who took over the program in 2008. He’s built the program from a handful of athletes to 18 this season. The program still isn’t what it was during the sport's glory days, but it’s no longer on life support.
The days when wrestling rooms were packed three deep are gone. They were gone when I arrived in Steamboat Springs 23 years ago. Before I arrived, Carl Ramunno built teams that dominated the wrestling mats in Northwest Colorado and around the state. He held a 365-75-2 dual record. The Sailors set the standard that other teams wanted to match, and Steamboat athletes were the ones that most of those other teams feared.
Ramunno ran a tight ship, and his teams brought home enough tournament and state titles to fill a hallway full of trophy cases, including six state team titles, 18 Northwest League championships and 19 district championships. He coached 27 individual state champions and 46 other place winners. His teams drew huge crowds, and the whole town took pride in what the athletes accomplished.
But it’s no secret that the number of wrestlers in the Yampa Valley has dropped since he stepped aside in 1987. He died in 1999 at the age of 68, but his legacy lived on in his children who went on to be teachers and coaches and in the memories of those he coached.
Over the years, the energy, the enthusiasm and the magic that the sport brought to our valley has seemed to fade. However, a small group of athletes have carried on the tradition.
On Tuesday, as I stood in a gym full of energy, full of promise and full of wrestlers, I discovered the tradition still exists. No, it wasn’t a return to the days when Ramunno’s teams dominated the sport in the state of Colorado. In fact, on this night, the Sailors lost in a close match to the Bulldogs, but that didn’t matter.
The energy filled the room. It was the type of moment the Sailors can build on, the type of moment that gives us all hope that wrestling is still alive and well in this corner of Northwest Colorado.
I’m not sure that wrestling will ever return to the days when Steamboat was led by Carl Ramunno, but this moment reminds us all of where the sport came from and what it means in our valley.
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966