By Brett Marshall
If it’s the final Friday and Saturday of January, and if you’re a wrestling fan, then Garden City High School and The Garden is the place you’ll want to be when the 61st edition of the prestigious Rocky Welton Invitational will be contested over two days of Jan. 25 and 26.
Just more than two weeks away from the opening day of the Welton, there were 43 schools and 44 teams registered to compete (37 a year ago), making it the largest field ever in the long history of the tournament. The tournament is named in honor of legendary GCHS coach Rocky Welton, who guided the Buffs to six state championships in the 1990s (1990-1991-1992-1994-1998-1999) and established the program as one of the elites in Kansas. His teams posted a dual-match record of 200-50-4 and he coached 30 state champions during his career, which also included a stint at Goodland.
When Carlos Prieto assumed the head coaching duties at the start of the 2012-13 season, the Buffs went on their second strong run in Kansas Class 6A, winning state team titles from 2013 through 2016 to up their total overall to 11 crowns. During that run, the Buffs tied for fourth, finished first, tied for first and placed second at the Welton, thus demonstrating just how tough the field has been for the event.
This year, there are 23 Kansas schools, 16 from Colorado, two from Nebraska, and one each from New Mexico and Texas.
The top 10 schools from 2018 will be returning, including defending champion Goddard, a Class 5A school in central Kansas. Kearney, Neb., was the runner-up, with Pueblo East, Colo., Pomona, Colo., and Valley Center rounding out the top five.
Prieto, now in his seventh season at the program’s coach, will bring a youthful Buffs’ squad into this year’s Welton. The early-season schedule has been brutal at times, with tournaments at Pine Creek, Colo., the Kansas City Stampede, and duals already with rival Dodge City, and there have been several bright spots.
“The boys have worked pretty hard this season and we’ve been successful in our dual matches,” Prieto said, “but the Welton is a different deal. There will be a lot of top-caliber wrestlers in every weight class from different schools and states. It’s an exciting tournament and while also among the biggest in Kansas, it may well be the toughest tournament in Kansas.”
Of the Kansas schools entered this year, 10 of them are currently ranked by the Kansas Wrestling Coaches Association as of Jan. 8. That group includes 6A schools Dodge City (4), Garden City (5), Olathe South (8), 5A schools Goddard (1), Blue Valley-Southwest (5), Great Bend (7), Newton (8), 4A schools Scott City (1, also defending 3-2-1A state champions), Andale (5) and Class 3-2-1A Colby (1) and Hoxie (10).
Missing from this year’s tournament, however, is Colorado powerhouse Ponderosa High School, and the nation’s No. 1-ranked 285-pounder in senior Cohlton Schultz. Schultz had won the Welton in each of his three previous seasons (2 at 220 pounds and 1 at 285 pounds), going unbeaten and winning every match by a fall, and never going the distance of the 6-minute, 3-periods.
“We’ll certainly miss him (Schultz),” Prieto said, “because not only is he an outstanding wrestler, he’s a tremendous young man. But it opens up the 285 division for others to step up.”
Individually, the Welton proved to be just as tough for the Buffs as they were unable to put any wrestler into the championship matches or even for a third-fourth place match. Jacob Holt, who won the 6A state title at 113 pounds in 2017 and then was runner-up at 126 a year ago, took sixth at the Welton while Alex Rodriguez placed seventh. Those two likely will compete at 132 and 195 this year.
Holt (18-1 through Jan. 9) has lost just once this season, that to Mosha Schwartz, a nationally-ranked wrestler from Ponderosa, Colo.
It has been four seasons since a Buff wrestler has won his division at the Welton, that coming when both Michael Prieto and Tevin Briscoe won the 126- and 145-pound classes. Those two went on to become the first four-time state champion (Prieto) and three-time champion (Briscoe) in school history. Aaron Lozano was in the 2016 finals at 285 pounds.
Friday’s opening rounds will begin at 8:30 a.m. in The Garden, to be followed by the championship round two and quarterfinals before the consolation round two gets under way. The championship semifinals will be at approximately 4:30 p.m., with day one competition expected to be completed around 9 p.m. Saturday’s final day also will begin at 8:30 a.m. Championship matches and placing matches (3rd-4th, 5th-6th) will begin on three mats at approximately 4:30 p.m.
Competing Teams at 61st Rocky Welton Wrestling Invitational
Total Schools (43)
Kansas (23): Andale; Blue Valley-Southwest; Colby; Dodge City; El Dorado; Emporia; Garden City; Goddard; Goodland; Great Bend; Hays; Holcomb; Hoxie; Hugoton; Lakin; Liberal; Newton; Olathe South; Republic County; Scott City; St. James Academy; Ulysses; Valley Center.
Colorado (16): Air Academy; Bear Creek; Brush; Canon City; Cheyenne Wells; Doherty; Eaglecrest; LaJunta; Lamar; Lewis-Palmer; Pine Creek; Pomona; Pueblo Centennial; Pueblo East; Pueblo West; Vista Ridge.
Nebraska (2): Kearney; Scottsbluff.
New Mexico (1): Silver.
Texas (1): Randall.