RIFLE, Colorado - Oscar Ruelas is making his first trip to a state wrestling tournament. That said, he decided to bring some experience with him.
The 120-pound Rifle High School junior is the younger brother of senior Hugo Ruelas, who did not qualify for the Class 4A State Championships. So when Oscar takes the mat at Pepsi Center in Denver today, he'll be wearing his older brother's wrestling shoes.
"I remember watching my oldest brother go to state and how it was just craziness," Oscar Ruelas said. "I can't wait to experience that.
"So that's why I'm going to be wearing his shoes," he continued. "It's a way of honoring him."
Oscar Ruelas and the other four Rifle wrestlers who earned state berths will be vying for the honor of a spot on the championship podium when the 4A and 3A tournaments, which begin today, wrap up on Saturday. In all, 15 Garfield County athletes from Glenwood Springs, Rifle, Coal Ridge and Grand Valley High Schools will begin that quest this morning.
In the 3A tournament, Grand Valley is sending six wrestlers and Coal Ridge four. Competitors will begin in the preliminary round at 3 p.m. today. Glenwood's lone representative in the 4A tournament, 170-pounder Justin Barnham (26-8), will compete with Rifle's four representatives during today's 7:15 p.m. preliminaries.
Though Oscar Ruelas (31-3) is making his first trip to a state wrestling tournament of any kind, this will be his team's first trip to the 4A tournament since 2010. Rifle had spent the past two years at the 3A level, then made the jump back to 4A this year.
That jump in the level of competition turned out to be an eye-opener when the Bears were at the Region 3 tournament in Montrose this past weekend.
"When we were at 3A, there were no worries about who you had to wrestle in the early rounds [at regionals]," said sophomore Isaac Rider (31-11), who will go to state at 126 pounds. "In 4A, you pretty much have to worry about everyone even if you don't know them. You have to go out there and perform because if you don't perform, you're not going to make it."
Along with Ruelas and Rider, 132-pounder Coy Zang (37-9) and 138-pounder Dallas Rohrig (35-9) will go to state for the Bears, who finished 10th as a team in the regional.
"Going up in class made a huge difference for us," Rifle coach John Wisniewski said. "We told the kids at the beginning of the season that we'd be playing with some of the big boys, and it was really prevalent in Montrose.
"I was hoping to get six to eight guys there," the coach continued. "But the guys we have going are top-notch guys."
Coal Ridge doubled the amount of wrestlers it sent to the state tournament a year ago. The Titans will have four athletes representing their school, including freshman Lane Nelson (113), sophomore Christian Keith (152), junior Jerry Jurarado (170) and senior Cole Zyweic (14-6). Each one finished fourth in last weekend's 3A Region 1 Tournament at Grand Valley High School.
Grand Valley's six wrestlers are the most of any county school. Cody Pfau (106), Tucker Schultz (138), George Stagg (145), William Hinkle (152), Michael Salazar (160) and Bryan Hegwood (170) will represent the Parachute school this weekend.
It's a contingent coach Rick Gallegos is pleasantly surprised to have.
"Coming into that regional, I would have expected three or four of our kids to go to state," Gallegos said. "The fact that we have six going couldn't make me any happier."