The wrestling team from Paonia High School kept its leader for one more year, and the Eagles are looking forward to a strong showing at state. Again.
Defying all expectations after losing the regional title for the first time in years, Paonia finished an impressive fourth in the 2A state tournament last year.
All eight of the Paonia wrestlers who qualified for state won at least two matches and almost all of them are coming back this year.
With one notable exception, of course. Bo Pipher took his three individual state titles and his incredible leadership skills to defending national champion Penn State, where he redshirted this year.
A lot of fans thought that with Bo Pipher's graduation, his coach and father Andy Pipher would not return to lead the Eagles this year.
"I definitely considered it," Pipher said at practice last week. "When Bo decided that he was going to redshirt, and be clear out in Pennsylvania at Penn State, you know, that made a difference.
"I'm still going to make a few of his matches," Pipher added. "I might miss some high school tournaments, but we got great coaches in the room and it doesn't really matter who's there on the weekend, the boys will wrestle hard and do well.
But it was definitely a consideration. We'll just take it year by year and see how it goes."
Senior Trevor Smith leads the Eagles this year on the mats. Smith started at 220 pounds last season but wrestled 195 at state, where he finished third overall.
Sophomore Sackett Chesnik looks to build off of his outstanding freshman campaign. Last year he finished fourth overall at state in the 126 pound division.
Junior Jaden Miller returns after his fifth-place finish at state at 182 pounds. Eli Etter also placed fifth at state last year at 106 pounds.
Garrett Beck (113 pounds) and Clay Campbell (138 pounds) are two more returning state qualifiers for the Eagles this year.
Cyrus Baxter will join the team after Christmas. Baxter went to Montrose last year but returns to Paonia this season.
Cyrus Malek-Madani, Levi Peterson and senior Gabe Ferguson are some of the other experienced Eagles that will grapple for Paonia.
In all the Eagles have about 20 kids this year, a normal turnout for the perennially strong wrestling program.
"Practice has been great. It's going awesome," Pipher said. "A lot of good kids working really hard."
Paonia lost the 2A Region 1 tournament to Hotchkiss last year, ending a long streak as region champ. That loss motivates some of the Eagles.
"I think it does," Pipher said. "Sometimes you can't focus on that too much. We didn't focus on that very hard last year. Sure you'd like to win it but the team that beat us at the regional tournament, we beat at state.
"The focus for us is always the state tournament," Pipher added. "Regionals we don't care if we're first, second or third. The goal is to be first at state. And we haven't been first at state in a while and that's where we want to be."
Early in the season, the coach of the Eagles just wants his charges to enjoy themselves.
"Go out there and wrestle hard, but mostly have some fun," Pipher said. "Don't forget why you started doing this sport and that's to have fun. If they have fun, the wins will come throughout the year and I think it's just going to be a really good season."
The same is true for their coach, who was covered in sweat and grinning from ear to ear after practice.
"I'm really excited. I just had a blast here tonight," Pipher said. "That's what it's all about. When I quit having fun, I'm done, and I had a lot of fun tonight."
5-0 at Maverick
Paonia won all five of its duals in the two days at the Maverick Duals at Colorado Mesa University last weekend.
Paonia beat Montrose 45-27 in the highlight dual of the weekend. The Eagles beat Grand Valley 54-30 and handed Rifle a 45-24 defeat.
The Eagles also beat Montezuma-Cortez 42-18 and defeated Ignacio 54-45.
Paonia has its first home dual of the year on Friday night at 6 p.m. against Rifle.
After that the Paonia varsity wrestlers have their next six matches on the road.