Thanks to the statewide classification realignment prior to this school year, Pine Creek found itself in new territory, wrestling down a class in 4A.
The Eagles' road to the state tournament didn't get any easier.
"That's definitely an easy perception to make," said Pine Creek wrestling coach Billy Gabel, whose team in the 5A ranks goes back to before he came on board prior to the 2007-08 academic year. "I think if you look at the teams, it was definitely tougher in 4A. We hadn't seen a lot of the teams in 4A until this year, so that was part of it."
Through it all, however, Pine Creek got six of its wrestlers into the state tournament, which runs Thursday-Sunday at the Pepsi Center in Denver. It's an even split among the half dozen, signaling the experience from the past - highlighted by 2016 state champions Peter Isais and Garrett Niel along with state qualifier Ronald Salazar III - to the new blood, consisting of freshman Billy Hudson III and seniors Andrew Transtrum and Clay Rivard.
But it was far from a cakewalk in a lower class, based on what it took to claw through a fiercely competitive bracket at the Cheyenne Mountain-based region tournament this weekend. Class 4A seems especially deep this year among area programs, with Cheyenne Mountain (12), Canon City (nine), Mesa Ridge (eight) and Discovery Canyon (seven) all qualifying more wrestlers to state than Pine Creek.
While Isais and Niel emerged unbeaten in the 160- and 170-pound classes, the other four had to battle back from losses to clinch their state berths.
Hudson, Salazar and Transtrum won respective third-place matches at 113, 152 and 195, respectively.
Rivard had a much different route to his first state berth. He cruised into the semifinals at 220 before an overtime loss put the senior into the consolation semifinals. He lost again, getting pinned 21 seconds into the second period, but still had life in the fifth-place match.
A second-period pin gave Rivard one more chance in a wrestleback, and he made it count, pinning Canon City's Gage Pruitt with 13 seconds left in the second period.
"My coaches and family helped me get in the right mindset for the wrestleback," Rivard said. "This might be my last shot, and I knew I had to win. I think in the previous matches, I didn't go in with that mindset."
Not bad for the senior who finally stuck on the varsity squad. A season before, that wasn't the case.
"Last year on varsity, Clay might have won five matches," Gabel said. "He worked really hard in the offseason and put himself in position to win matches at state. When you get to a wrestleback, it's about guts and drive. You have to want to win it bad enough, and he did."
In 2016, Pine Creek got seven wrestlers through to the 5A tournament. The Eagles, buoyed by three individual champions, finished fourth in the team standings.
This season's Eagles, who at times wrestled underclassmen in a majority of the weight classes, don't seem to mind the change in class. Then again, it probably doesn't matter anymore.
"When you get on the mat, it doesn't matter if the guy on the other side is 4A or 5A," Rivard said. "School size helps, but you just have to wrestle and do your best. I think if we were 5A or 4A, it would have been the same result. It's all on how much you want it."