GRAND JUNCTION — There’s a big difference between the high school wrestler James Martinez was and the college wrestler he’s become. His coach can attest to that.
“He didn’t come in here after having just a stellar high school career,” seventh-year Colorado Mesa University wrestling coach Chuck Pipher said. “It’s not like he won three state titles or something. But he had a great base for us to work with, and he’s become a much better college wrestler than he ever was a high school wrestler.”
Granted, Martinez, a 2010 Rifle High School graduate, didn’t have an awful high school career either. He finished third in the Class 3A State Championships as a junior, then followed that up with a fifth-place finish in the 140-pound bracket of the 4A tournament at the Pepsi Center in Denver during his senior year.
Now Martinez has a chance to earn a spot on the podium at a whole different level. Through this past weekend’s matches, Martinez owns a 12-2 record wrestling at 149 pounds. He suffered just his second loss of the season at the Tracy Borah Duals in Gunnison on Jan. 11, with Natrelle Demison of Division I Air Force earning a 9-5 victory over Martinez.
His overall performance this season has Martinez ranked No. 2 in Division II wrestling. He’s also part of the reason why the Mavericks are the 18th-ranked team in the nation, according to the most recent National Wrestling Coaches Association poll.
Martinez, however, is taking his success in stride.
“Honestly, I’m just happy that I’m staying healthy,” said the 22-year-old junior at Mesa, where he’s earned recognition as an academic All-American as a construction management major. “I still haven’t been able to put in a full season without getting hurt.”
Getting hurt hasn’t kept him from having success on the wrestling mat. He fought through problems with his medial collateral ligaments and lateral collateral ligaments during his sophomore season to place fourth at 149 pounds in the NCAA Super Region IV Championships in Chadron, Neb. During his freshman season, he posted a 15-7 individual record even though he missed four weeks with a sports-induced hernia.
The regimen of competing through injury only added to the already exhausting daily commitment needed to wrestle past the high school level. Not that it mattered to Martinez, who with two heavily taped knees still reached the national semifinals at 149 pounds in Birmingham, Ala. He wound up falling to Nebraska-Kearney’s Raufeon Stots in the semis, which turned out to be the first of three consecutive losses to net him a sixth-place finish.
Last year’s finish has stuck with Martinez ever since, and he’s using that experience to help drive him toward every wrestler’s ultimate goal.
“I want to be a national champion,” Martinez said. “But I have to stay healthy. Seriously, that’s my biggest focus right now.
“I need to make sure there’s a balance between staying healthy and competing every day,” he continued. “I think I have the talent and my coaches think I have the talent to be at the top of the podium. But you’re not going to do it if you go into the national tournament when you’re not at full strength. Even at 80 percent, I’m not going to do it.”
It ended up being by chance that Martinez had the opportunity to do this at Mesa.
And while he wasn’t heavily recruited coming out of high school, Pipher had shown interest in Martinez, who wanted to attend college closer to home. From there, Mesa’s coaching staff built on the base foundation of skills Martinez already had, that included solid footwork and the ability to stay strong during restarts from below his opponents.
That’s helped Martinez — who wrestled for his dad, Danny, and Head Coach John Wisniewski at Rifle High School — become the wrestler he is now. And the confidence the Mesa junior has on the mat has helped make him one of the better wrestlers in the country.
Needless to say, Pipher likes what Martinez has become.
“He has a chance to be a three-time national qualifier, a national champion, and a three-time academic All-American,” the coach said. “Plus he’s become a real team player who has no problem being the face of the program. It’s a really neat thing to see.”
“He’s become a real team player who has no problem being the face of the program. That’s a really neat thing to see.”
Seventh-year Colorado Mesa University wrestling coach speaking about Rifle High School graduate James Martinez