Billy Gabel’s alarm sounded at 3:30 a.m. Saturday, and it had very little to do with last-minute preparations for the first Battle of the Best wrestling tournament at Pine Creek. Instead, he was tasked with peeling potatoes for his wife’s heralded breakfast burrito recipe, one of many treats headed for the hospitality room.
He never got to taste the labors of his work. But by the early evening when points were finally tallied, the Eagles' wrestling coach held something more valuable, a championship plaque that showed the true fruits of his labor.
No burrito, no problem. His team won the whole enchilada instead.
The Eagles, the defending 5A state champions, bested 15 other teams in the all-day event, offering an early season glimpse of state-quality wrestling where the name of the event truly lived up to its name.
“I was impressed with the amount of teams and competition,” Gabel said. “It’s a nice little opener and gives us something to fine tune. There are still 2½ months left in the season, but we placed nine guys out of 14. Hopefully next year, it’ll be twice as big and twice as tough.”
Pine Creek powered to the top, thanks to three individual titles and four third-place finishes. The Eagles finished with 173 points, 12.5 ahead of Centauri. Pueblo South, Discovery Canyon and Fountain-Fort Carson rounded out the top five.
Of the 12 teams, eight were ranked in the top 10 of their class, including Pomona (5A runner-up), Pueblo South (4A runner-up) and Discovery Canyon (4A third place), to name a few.
“I came into this knowing there would be tough competition,” said Discovery Canyon junior Tyler Oberg, who broke a 3-3 tie with a last-minute escape point to win the 145-pound division over Pueblo Central’s Keenan Wyatt. “We picked up the intensity in practices earlier than we usually do.”
In addition to Pine Creek’s team success, Eagles senior Alex Smith, who won the 152-pound class title, was named outstanding wrestler (heavy division).
The idea of a home-court invitational coursed through Gabel’s head since last year, and volunteer junior varsity coach Jeff Renehan, a retired Air Force veteran, took on tournament director duties with the help of many.
With action on four mats simultaneously, a buzzing concessions area in the cafeteria and a hospitality room that offered barbecued beef and chicken, rolls and homemade chocolate chip cookies to coaches and volunteer workers, the Battle of the Best made sure no small details were left to chance.
“There are a ton of logistics, but we had run a regional tournament before, so we had a little practice,” Renehan said. “I had a pretty big checklist of things to do, and the more times you do it, the better you feel. Most of all, the coaches seem to be happy.”
Even Gabel, despite no burrito.