A familiar phrase perfectly describes the scene at last weekend's Colorado High School Wrestling State Championships in Denver.
"This is definitely one of the biggest spectacles of the high school season," meet manager Steve Valdez said. "I've seen other meets around and I think we are one of the tops in the nation. Colorado is big on wrestling."
Following Valdez around the concourse at the Pepsi Center gives one an instant impression of the craziness of the gala event. Thousands of people pour in and out of the building over the course of the three-day tournament.
Wrestlers, cheerleaders, family members, referees, countless media members and a cast of hundreds of floor workers keep the event bustling at a hectic pace. This was the 81st version of the event.
Valdez has been in and around high school wrestling in Colorado since 1977, when he was a grappler at Alameda High School. He's helped coach state champions at Brighton, Arvada West and Standley Lake.
Really his career began in the Arkansas River Valley, where he learned to wrestle with his cousins.
"The wrestling community is a family," Valdez said. "The people that you meet, the people that you work with, the people that you compete against, it makes you a family. There are times when I go all around the state and I run into people I know simply because of the sport."
Valdez has been meet manager at the state tournament for the last eight years.
"Everything," he said when asked to describe his duties. "You get everybody all set, you get table help, you make sure the mats are all taken care of, you work hard with CHSAA (Colorado High School Activities Association), you make sure everything's all set with them. There's all kinds of stuff. Just tons of stuff to do."
Wrestling is a unique sport during the high school season. No other sport has such intimate struggle among such fierce competitors.
"You have that one-on-one competition," Valdez said. "You've got to be very competitive for it and you have to have the heart and the desire to go for it. It's so individual in nature because you learn from your mistakes and you also learn what not to do in the next match.
"It's very competitive. It really brings out a lot in you. It really brings out your character and your individuality," he said.
Unique to wrestling as well is the camaraderie and true feelings of sportsmanship and respect that the wrestlers and coaches show for each other and for other teams.
"In meets like this, the whole family gets involved," Valdez said.
Over the years, Valdez has seen hundreds of matches and thousands of wrestlers. Over time he has seen certain attributes that wrestlers have in common.
In particular, the boys from the Western Slope leave a lasting impression.
"Western Slope wrestlers are tough. They are very, very tough," Valdez said. "In fact at one time, they dominated the sport. It took a lot for the other side just to come up to their level.
"You see a lot of kids from the Western Slope out on the plains and every week at various tournaments people will travel to compete against them," he added. "Any time they face a team from the Western Slope, they're gonna get a good match."
Cedaredge heavyweight Mario Madaleno was on a mission.
The Bruins senior came into the state tournament with a 21-8 record.
"He's had a really good season. Mario's opened up and he's making moves and just wrestling like he's supposed to. He's had a great year," Cedaredge coach Cutter Garrison said.
Madaleno won his first two matches to set up a semifinal versus Rocky Ford's big man Greg Garcia. Madaleno was a fan favorite at state, where crowds loved his elaborate shoulder tattoos and his energy on the mat.
"He's a senior and he wants to go out on top and that's what his plan is," Garrison said.
Madaleno built a 1-0 lead for most of the match, using his superior strength and constantly keeping the pressure on Garcia. But the Rocky Ford grappler was able to tie the bout at 1-1 and then he won 5-1 after an escape and takedown in the final seconds.
Madaleno roared an expletive in anger as he left the mat, but regrouped and won all his matches in the consolation round and took third place at state.
Wrestlers from the Western Slope don't quit even if they lose. Garrison was quick to sum up what makes competitors like Madaleno special.
"I think it's just toughness. Grit," Garrison said. "Those boys, their lifestyle, they're just tough kids. I grew up on the Western Slope and they're just physical, tough kids, and I think that's what the Western Slope brings."
Delta Panthers coach Clayton Curtis went through all the highs and lows of an entire tournament in just the quarterfinals at state. Five Panthers made the round and two of them advanced to the 3A semis.
But that brief description hardly covers the true nature of the event for the Panthers as two of those quarterfinal bouts went to overtime and a third, Shaun Staats' marathon victory over Christian Guerrero of Dolores Huerta, was a 21-19 decision.
"They were all tough matches," Curtis said. "You see a lot of really tough matches here in the quarterfinals because they know if they get to the semis they place. A lot of dreams are broken right here."
All of Delta's quarterfinal matches were hard fought and full of injury timeouts, scoring disputes with referees and loud shouting from fans.
Curtis, a three-time state champion at Alamosa during his high school career, said the drama was not typical of the Panthers' season.
"No. That's kind of unusual for us. They were just tough matches," he said.
The Panthers fought their way back through consolation matches to finish fifth in the team standings at state, showing typical Western Slope pride and always keeping the overall goal in sight.
"I continue to look for those guys to keep pushing forward," Curtis said. "That's their goal, is to be state champs."
The Hotchkiss Bulldogs battled adversity all season and won the 2A Region 1 championship. It was the first regional crown for the team since the early 2000s and the Bulldogs qualified a county-high 11 wrestlers for state.
No Bulldog embodied the spirit of Western Slope wrestlers more than senior Austin Todd, who held a 28-6 record and was the No. 2-rated wrestler at 145 pounds going into state.
"I'm always proud of Austin Todd," Hotchkiss coach Richard Flores said. "This is the toughest sport. He's gone through a lot in his life, doing the best he can. Things that most high school kids don't see.
"He's faced adversity that other kids don't have to face," Flores added. "For him to just show up and finish the season, I'm proud of him for being here."
Todd led his semifinal match against Jace Logan of Soroco 1-0 for most of the bout. But Logan surprised him in the end with a takedown and won 3-1, sending Todd to the consolation bracket.
"We're at the Pepsi Center; the best get beat here all the time," Flores said. "Unfortunately, for this time, for this match, it was us."
Todd won two more matches and claimed third place at state, completing an outstanding season.
Flores knows all about the competition at state through his own family ties. His father and uncle were both three-time state champs at Fowler and Flores himself made the finals twice as a wrestler at Delta but lost both times.
"I have a lot of nightmares about those last two matches I had here in high school," Flores said.
Western Slope wrestlers impress Flores because they are willing to go all out.
"They're participating in the toughest sport in high school," he said. "There are few sports where you get beat up every day, and not only that you have to watch your weight every day.
"It is stressful, there are mind games involved, and you are all by yourself," Flores said. "There are no teammates to hide behind."
No story about the toughness of Western Slope wrestlers is complete without mention of the Piphers.
One of the original homesteading families in Crawford, the Piphers have deep wrestling roots in the North Fork Valley.
Bo Pipher added to the family legacy when he won his third state title last Saturday night. Pipher won all four of his matches at the state tournament by pinfall and raised his career pin record to an all-time Colorado best 131.
Andy Pipher, Bo's father, has coached at Paonia for 20 years and led the Eagles to five state championships. Andy himself claimed a title and Bo's uncles Chuck and Curtis Pipher were also state champs, all at Hotchkiss High School.
Bo Pipher couldn't really compare his father's coaching style to any other because he's never had another coach, but he believes his father imparts Western Slope values when he works with wrestlers.
"He pushes us to work hard to give it our all on the mat and never give up and just push ourselves in the (training) room and everywhere else," Bo said.
Bo compiled a 95-0 record the last two years of his high school career. Over the course of his four years he's seen a lot of different wrestlers, and he thinks the grapplers from the Western Slope stand out.
"I think the kids who come from the Western Slope give it their all out there and leave it out on mat," Bo said. "Hard work really pays off, and everyone on the Western Slope seems to work hard."
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