It's a tradition at Paonia High School that each year, after state wrestling, the team celebrates the end of the season and enjoys some ice cream. And each year Paonia head coach Andy Pipher recaps the season and shares something personal about each wrestler.
At last week's annual ice cream party, Pipher came to Gabe Ferguson, a 120-pound senior who placed sixth at state. "It was a joy to coach Gabe," said Pipher. "He just fought hard all the time." Ferguson had to work to make the varsity squad his senior year. So in December Pipher was surprised when he took second at the Central Warrior Classic, one of the most competitive regular-season tournaments in the state. Pipher said he wouldn't have believed anyone who said he'd take second at the Warrior. "I think he even surprised himself," he said.
At state, he said, a freshman from John Mall won the title at Ferguson's weight and ended the season with a 12-1 record. Think about it, said Pipher. "His one loss was to Gabe. Gabe pinned him at the Center tournament in a Sanders Cradle. You know, that kid could go undefeated for the next three years, and his only loss in high school could be to Gabe Ferguson."
Pipher is the consummate high school coach. One season he took 14 wrestlers to Florida over winter break to compete in the Bradenton Duals. Last week he told of how the team, which wasn't expected to win this year's regional title, did anyway. "They calmed down and just wrestled outstanding. I couldn't have asked for a better regional tournament," he said. At state, he said, they probably lost in a couple of places where they should have won. "That's no different than what these guys will experience for the next 50 years of their life," he said.
After handing out certificates and letters Pipher officially announced his retirement. Pretty much everyone already knew. Pipher, who is 48, said he's been involved in wrestling since age 6. In the last 42 years, "I've never missed a winter in the wrestling room... I don't know what winter is without wrestling."
Pipher said he considered stepping down at the end of last year's season, after son Bo graduated and signed to wrestle at Penn State, but didn't say anything. He decided he'd stay one more year, knowing Bo would red shirt.
Pipher took over as head coach in 1996. It seems like yesterday, he said. "I remember the first day I walked in the door here to take the job." With a devoted coaching staff that included Mike Reedy, Mark Meilner, Bobby Reed, Tim Austin, Nate Wiggins and Lucas Wiggins, Paonia won team titles in 2000, 2009, 2012, 2013 and 2014. In all, 14 wrestlers claimed 21 individual state titles under his watch. In 2014, Bo Pipher, Jesse Reed, Ty Coats, Zach Milner and Tony Darling all won state titles.
In 2015, Reed became the 18th wrestler in state history to win four state titles. "He is truly a phenomenal coach that really knows how to get the very best out of every individual wrestler," said Reed, who wrestles for the University of Northern Colorado Bears.
Reed started training under Pipher as a peewee. He said he's fortunate "not only to be coached by one of the greatest coaches in high school wrestling history, but to have also built that personal relationship that Coach Pipher and I have. I cannot thank him enough for everything he has done for me through my wrestling career, and also for what he has done for the Paonia wrestling program."
"The amount of care and passion he puts into coaching is unreal," wrote two-time state champion Justin Smith via Facebook. "Andy Pipher was always behind every kid that walked through that (wrestling room) door." Pipher "can literally tear you down to nothing and then build your self confidence to the highest." Smith won the 145-pound title in 2008, and at 160 in 2010. "Nothing in the world will ever match the feeling of coach Pipher looking at me and telling me how proud he was of me," he said.
This February, Trevor Smith became Pipher's last wrestler on the mat, and his last state champion after winning the Class 2A heavyweight title. Having Pipher as his coach "has definitely made a huge impact on my wrestling career and life in a major way," said Smith. "He has taught me to have fun and remember why I started wrestling in the first place. He expects nothing but your best when you walk out on that mat and he holds you to a high standard."
Smith's favorite Pipher quote: "Beat someone that you shouldn't," said Smith. When that happens, kids "start winning tournaments and championships."
"State championships are hard to come by," said Pipher, a two-time champion at Hotchkiss High School, a one-time national champion and four-time all-American (placing sixth or higher) at Colorado State University - Pueblo (1989-1992). Including Bo's three championships, the Pipher family has seven state wrestling titles between them. Brother Chuck, also a four-time All American and three time national champion at Colorado State University - Pueblo (1986-1989), is head coach at Colorado University. Brother Clint, a two-time All American who wrestled at CSU-Pueblo from 1991-1994, was an assistant coach at CSU and now lives in Pueblo.
Andy started wrestling at age 6 after watching cousin Curly, a state champion at Paonia, when he was four or five years old. His dad started bringing Andy and his brothers to Paonia to wrestle with the Police Department athletic club after they didn't get to play in a T-ball game. His dad told him that no one's going to tell them they can't compete.
"It's all history from there," said Pipher. He spent a year as assistant coach at CSU before returning to his home town of Crawford, where he ran a small logging business. He taught classes and coached junior high wrestling at Delta Middle School for a year, then transferred to Crawford, where he started a junior high wrestling program. They hadn't had a wrestling program for 15 or 20 years, he said. After committing to Paonia he quit teaching to focus on coaching.
While a lot of kids will say that Pipher has inspired them, he sees it differently. "Kids have inspired me," said Pipher. "You learn from the kids every day, and those kids become a big part of your life. The memories those kids have given me and those things I've learned from the kids and this community are just huge."
When asked what stands out for him, he said all of it stands out. Of course, the first state champion and first team title are all exciting, but as a parent, he said, seeing Bo win state titles, or even big matches, was one of the best parts of his career.
Pipher plans to follow Bo's career at Penn State, and follow daughter Carson, an all-state student-athlete for Paonia now playing basketball for Colorado Mesa University. A new head coach is expected to be named next fall.
Pipher said he plans to continue running the Paonia Summer Duals wrestling camp (usually several states), held in June, which attracts wrestlers from throughout the region. "I need to keep doing that and keep bringing teams in," he said. "That's my goal, and I enjoy doing that."
Like the seniors, "I'm ready for my next chapter, too," Pipher told the DCI. "And I'm not saying I'll never coach again. But you know, right now, I'm going to go support my kids in whatever they do."
Paonia state champions under Andy Pipher
2000: Luke Chesnik (160).
2003: Billy Gaston (130).
2006: Chris Kennedy (285).
2007: Tanner Ridgway (171).
2008: Justin Smith (145); Devon Brown (171).
2009: Justin Iacovetto (119); Lukas Wiggins(152).
2010: James Drinkhouse (140); Smith (160).
2012, 2013: Jesse Reed (113, 120).
2014: Reed (126); Bo Pipher (132); Ty Coats (152)
Zack Milner (160); Tony Darling (HWT).
2015: Reed (126) Pipher (138).
2016: Pipher (145).
2017: Trevor Smith (285).