John F. Russell: Taking in the spotlight at state wrestling championships |

John F. Russell: Taking in the spotlight at state wrestling championships

— It's been a few years since I stood on the floor of the Pepsi Center watching the state high school wrestling championships unfold, but if you've been there once, the feeling will stay with you for a lifetime.

"There is nothing else like it in high school sports," former wrestler and current Soroco coach Jay Whaley said last week while helping his wrestlers prepare for this past weekend.

The emotions of the weekend are hard to explain to someone who never has been to the state tournament as a wrestler, a sports reporter or a spectator.

But this tournament has a life of its own and is truly unique. The excitement begins on a Friday with the opening rounds and grows throughout the weekend. By the time Saturday night arrives, the stands are filled with energetic fans, and the excitement is almost more than the building can hold.

The cheers roll through the arena as all the championship matches take place at the same time. Champions celebrate when they win, and you have to feel for those young men who come within minutes of their goals only to have them taken away or pinned to the mat. There is no team celebration at the end of each match for the winners, no tearful hugs with teammates for the losers. This moment in the spotlight is not to be shared.

At the end of the championship match, the winner and loser take their places in front of thousands of fans for a moment that the two never will forget. As the official who refereed the match raises the hand of the winner, there is no place for the loser to hide. But in the spotlight of the state tournament, there also is no reason for this second-place wrestler to hang his head; there is no shame on the floor of the Pepsi Center, only pride. These are the moments that fuel the excitement of the week. Both wrestlers are responsible for the anticipation of the moment and both are responsible for making this event one of the best in high school sports.

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Sure it's a lot more fun if the wrestlers from our local schools are doing well, but the truth is that it's hard not to get caught up in the excitement of the event no matter the school colors you wear.

Back when Whaley wrestled at the tournament, Soroco, Hayden and Steamboat sent busloads of wrestlers to the state tournament. Times have changed, but the excitement of the tournament still lives in the hearts of the wrestlers who helped pencil its legacy. Wrestlers like Whaley.

Now, his goal is to make sure that the next generation of wrestlers in Routt County will be inspired to be a part of the tradition of the state high school championships.

"I wish these guys could experience what it was like back then," Whaley said.

The coach knows getting there is not easy, but he also knows that passing the experience of the state tournament to another generation of wrestlers is worth the effort.

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209 or email

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