Gazette Preps Wrestling Coach of the Year: Rob Braaten, Mesa Ridge

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The Mesa Ridge wrestling team knew it wasn't going to finish in the top three of the Class 4A state tournament in February.

How about top five? That'd be fine, too.

Ultimately, the Grizzlies placed fourth with 86.5 points, thanks to four wrestlers capturing top three podium finishes. It was a tight battle for the top spot, as Windsor (159.5) barely edged Pueblo East (159) and Pueblo County (158) for the title.

Nonetheless, it was an ideal finish for a Grizzlies team that boasted just five state qualifiers.

"I really didn't believe I'd be able to hang with those top three," Mesa Ridge coach Rob Braaten said, "so we set the goal at fourth and wanted to be up there."

In the end, Braaten's realistic approach helped him land The Gazette Preps 2017-18 Wrestling Coach of the Year honor. He guided the Grizzlies to the best finish for any Pikes Peak region team.

Despite usually having a smaller number of wrestlers compared to other teams, the Grizzlies have placed in top 10 at state for the past five seasons. And they hope that trend continues.

This past season's Grizzlies run was highlighted by senior Elijah Valdez's 152-pound title win over Pueblo County's Christopher Fasano.

All but one of the Mesa Ridge wrestlers finished in the top six. Sophomore Jared Volcic (195) and senior Dominick Fini (220) placed third, while senior Mike True finished as the 285 runner-up.

Fini won his last match despite suffering an injury, illustrating a side of toughness that the Grizzlies are known for.

At 120, senior Devin Lueck did not end up with a podium finish but earned a few much-needed points by winning two matches.

Mesa Ridge will have to rebuild for next season. It loses four seniors who qualified for the state tournament.

At the same time, Braaten is not worried.

He pointed out that a handful of his underclassmen competed at the regional finals this past season and just missed the state tournament cut, and he expects them to make a run at it again next year.

"I think we'll climb up there," the sixth-year coach said. "I think we'll be a good, solid team next year."