At Saturday night’s CHSAA state wrestling championships in Denver, Paonia senior Rockley Grey Neal knew in the first period of his state title match that he would win.

The sole state champion from Delta County, Neal was seeded first in Class 2A at 160 pounds. In the first-place match he controlled the mat to defeat second-seeded Micah Hertrich of Buena Vista by a 6-2 decision. Neal scored four of his points early in the first round; both of Hertrich’s points were scored on escapes.

A four-year state qualifier who finished third his sophomore and junior years, Neal said he was confident heading into the first-place match. “There’s never been a time when I felt more prepared than this match,” said Neal, who had lost twice this season to Hertrich. “I lost to him in two different ways … I knew both of his ways of winning.

“I can be a crazy wrestler, or I can be a finesse wrestler. Tonight I was both, and he wasn’t ready for it,” said Neal. “I knew if I could make him wrestle, he’d come to me, and I could capitalize on anything he wanted to do. Instead of me wrestling his game plan, I took every bit of offense he had away. That’s what separated the match.”

Neal thanked head coach Nate Wiggins, dad/assistant coach Eric Neal, former coach Bobby Reed — a two-time champion and father of four-time Paonia champion Jesse Reed, former coach Andy Pipher, “and anybody who wanted to work with me… There would have been no chance without my coaches.”

“He had a tough kid to beat,” said Wiggins. “He got her done, he made the adjustments.”

In the semifinal round Neal battled to a 4-2 win over fourth seeded senior Jason Baldonaldo of Rocky Ford, winning on a reversal in double overtime.

Wiggins is a state placer from Paonia who has coached wrestling for over a decade. In his three years as head coach, Neal is the first to win a state title for him. “We broke the curse,” said Neal, referring to Paonia’s string of second-place finishes since 2017, including two state runners-up in each of the last two seasons. “That was the goal.”

At 152, senior Zebb Etter was seeded 10th and placed second on a loss to No. 1 seeded junior Ty Collins of Wray (33-1). It was Etter’s first time to stand on the state podium.

In quarter finals Etter upset No. 2 seed Anthony Aldretti of John Mall, the 132-pound division state champion in 2019, on a first-round pin. Etter lost the first-place match, 6-0, to 34-1 junior Tyler Collins of Wray.

A three-time state qualifier, Etter placed fifth at regionals his junior year on some questionable stalling calls. “It was a really good rebound for him after last year,” said Wiggins.

Juniors Reagan Todd (138) and Anthony Miller (195) placed sixth.

Todd, who was seeded 11th, lost his opening match and wrestled back to place sixth.

Wiggins said that with a strong field of wrestlers at 132, Todd went up a weight class for a better shot at the podium. “He came in and wrestled better than he ever has,” said Wiggins. “He peaked right at the end of the season and wrestled the best I’ve seen him all year.”

The 2A Region 1 champion, Miller was seeded third, but broke his hand in his semifinal, 7-4 loss to Sedgwick/Fleming. He took injury defaults in the consolation semifinals and fifth-place matches to finish sixth.

“I think he would have placed third,” said Wiggins. “He wrestled a heck of a match in semis. It would have been nice to get a shot and wrestle.”

Senior Austin Norris, who bumped up to 220s late in the season, placed sixth. This year’s 2A Region 1 champion, Norris joined the team halfway through his sophomore year. He’s worked hard, said Wiggins. “We’re happy to get him as far as we did.”

Freshman Ace Connolly (113) did not place, and finishes his freshman season with a 22-25 record.

The team scored 72 points to finish eighth. With just six wrestlers, “I’m pretty happy with that,” said Wiggins.

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