The Paonia Eagles opened the wrestling season Saturday at the annual Maverick Duals at Colorado Mesa University. They also opened the season under a new head coach.
Nate Wiggins replaces Andy Pipher, who retired last season after 21 years as head coach at Paonia. Pipher led the Eagles to five state team championships and produced 21 individual state champions. He was twice named the Class 2A coach of the year. Pipher is now following son Bo's wrestling career at Penn State.
It's a big change, and one that would be a big challenge for a lot of high school teams. But for the Paonia wrestling program, the transition to the new coaching staff is going smoothly, and has occurred very gradually.
Wiggins is very familiar with the wrestling traditions at Paonia. Starting in middle school, he spent a good 15 years in the wrestling room with Pipher. A state placer for Paonia, he graduated in 2002 and went on to wrestle at Western State College (now Western State Colorado University) in Gunnison, where he majored in business.
When he returned to the valley in 2006, younger brother Lucas was a sophomore, so he signed on as a volunteer coach. He planned to stay until Lucas graduated. But with each new class of freshmen he committed to staying until they graduated.
"I came in to volunteer and help a couple times and ended up a lifer, I guess," said Wiggins.
In recent years he has gradually taken on more responsibilities, and in 2015 he was officially named assistant coach.
Wiggins also has an experienced coaching staff, each with his own unique style and knowledge to share.
They include Lucas Wiggins, a state champion for Paonia; Josh Burns, a four-year wrestler and state placer at Paonia and head coach at University High School in Greeley before moving back to Paonia last spring; Eric Neal, a returning assistant coach and state champion from Hotchkiss; Mike Reedy, also a state champion for Paonia and long-time assistant coach; and Emanuel Barba, the Paonia junior high head coach and former wrestler at Olathe.
That coaches are familiar with the program and wrestlers are familiar with coaches helps with the transition, said Wiggins.
The Eagles return five state qualifiers: sophomores Zeb Etter (126) and Grey Neal (152), junior Sackett Chesnik (138), and seniors Clay Campbell (145) and Jaden Miller (195).
All five are off to a good start. At Saturday's Maverick Duals Chesnik was 5-0 with three pins, including a second-round pin over 5A Grand Junction. One of three wrestlers to go 4-1, Campbell pinned four of five opponents and fell to Class 5A Grand Junction senior state runner up Dylan Martinez.
A 195-pound senior, Miller's only loss was to Tigers' senior Seth Latham; Neal's only loss was to No. 1 ranked Grand Junction senior Josiah Rider.
Etter (126) and junior Jesse Burns (160) ended the day at 3-2. Junior Anthony Felice (170) was 4-1.
Also returning are seniors Poncho Lopez (195), Cyrus Malek-Madani (195), and Kaden Heiniger (285); and juniors Ethan White (120), Soul Connolly (120) and Jesse Burns (160).
Sophomores are Shane Odom (145), Carlos Lozano (152), Austyn Norris (170), Levi Peterson (220) and Samuel Erickson (132). Incoming freshmen are Reagan Todd (106), Mason Lightfoot (126) and Anthony Miller (170).
With about 22 wrestlers on the roster, Wiggins said he anticipates a full team and a competitive season.
This Thursday at 6 p.m. Paonia duals at Hotchkiss. It travels to Rifle Friday. On Dec. 9 it competes at the Delta Invitational. The Warrior Classic, a two-day tournament considered one of the most competitive in the state, happens Dec. 15-16 at Central High School in Grand Junction.
In its only home dual before the winter holiday, Paonia will dual Palisade on Dec. 20.
Paonia opens the new year on Jan. 12-13 at the Tournament of Champions in Vernal, Utah. This will be Paonia's first year at Vernal. Now in its 45th year, the premier tournament attracts teams from Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.