When his classmates were still sleeping, Mesa Ridge senior Elijah Valdez would start his day by jogging around his neighborhood.
It was a quiet, humble activity that would ultimately help him reach a lofty goal.
And that was winning a state title.
It finally happened Feb. 17, when he edged Pueblo County's Christopher Fasano 4-2 in the 152-pound championship match of the Class 4A state tournament at the Pepsi Center in Denver. His efforts landed him the Gazette Preps 2017-18 Wrestling Upper Weights Peak Performer of the Year.
"I remember that last little scramble that me and Fasano had," Valdez said. "As soon as the bell rang, I look at my coaches and they were cheering and jumping up and down and yelling."
His triumph also erupted in a riot of emotions for Valdez, his parents, his siblings and other relatives who were in the stands. They all cried but this was a moment they had wished all along.
"I work so hard all four years," said Valdez, who placed fifth as a sophomore and second as a junior at state. "In my last year, it paid off."
But all those honors might not have happened if he didn't lose his championship match against Valley’s Jaziah Whaley at the Old Chicago Northern Colorado Christmas Tournament in December. He lost 4-2 and came back home with a 14-1 record.
"I don't want to say I was cocky but I was feeling confident with myself," Valdez said. "And when I got that loss, it humbled me back down and say everybody is beatable."
He added, "I think that one loss contributed to my state title."
It sure did. He rattled off 28 straight victories and captured tournament titles along the way -- including the Colorado Springs Metro Championships, which attracts the best wrestlers across the Pikes Peak region. He finished the season 42-1.
Valdez's state tournament run highlighted the Grizzlies' fourth-place team finish.
But it wasn't always a smooth, easy ride this season. In the state semifinals against Greeley Central's Tony Ulaszek, Valdez was down 4-0 before he kept battling and battling and earned a pin with seconds left in the third and final period.
"That's the kind of kid he is," Mesa Ridge coach Rob Braaten said. "He keeps coming at you, and he'll find a way to make it work."
And after his only loss this season, that's what he did. He kept practicing harder, staying a little later after practice and going out for morning jogs while his mom, Rebecca, followed him in a car through their neighborhood.
"It's a constant effort from him," Braaten said. "That's how he is on the practice mat, that's how he is in a tournament, a dual match. He's always steady. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He just keeps coming."
And then, Valdez finally got to relax a little after his final high school season.
On some nights, he'd lay on his bed, roll over to his side and pull up a video of his state title match on his phone and watch it with a smile.
"I'm just smiling because I know the outcome of it," Valdez said.