Over the years, the wrestling programs at Coronado and Discovery Canyon have made quite the names for themselves. The Cougars won the 5A team title in 2011, while the Thunder finished a school-best second in 4A earlier this year.
Now, a lot of those same athletes are helping their football teams build reputations as some of the toughest, and best, around.
One team will stand with the South Central League trophy on Saturday when the Cougars (9-0, 3-0 3A South Central) visit the Thunder (8-1, 3-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday at District 20 Stadium. It's a highly anticipated showdown that pits athletes on both sides certainly accustomed to hand-to-hand combat of a different type.
"I first started playing football, but when I started wrestling, it helped with my balance, and I figured out how to be more aggressive," said Coronado senior linebacker Sam Smith, who finished fifth at 195 pounds at last season's 5A state wrestling meet. "One of the ways it transfers to football is the hard work. We work really hard in wrestling and learn how to grind it out."
With a run-heavy offense bolstered by a line with wrestling experience, the Cougars have racked up 304 points. But even more impressive is the Coronado defense, tops in 3A with only 53 points allowed. Glenwood Springs and Rifle are the next-closest teams in points surrendered at 105.
Last year, Coronado went 5-5, a remarkable turnaround on the heels of a winless 2011 season, as coach Bobby Lizarraga began to quickly rebuild a program that had just 10 victories from 2004-10.
One more victory will get them to that same number in only one season.
"They haven't really left much to doubt over the course of the season," Thunder coach Shawn Mitchell said. "Nobody is scoring on them. They're our opponent on Saturday, and I want to beat them, but I'm extremely impressed with what they've done."
The body of work built by Discovery Canyon isn't too shabby, either.
Following a 44-21 drubbing at the hands of Elizabeth on Sept. 13, the Thunder have rolled in a five-game winning streak, allowing just 30 points in that span.
"That game was humbling and brought us down to earth," said Thunder senior linebacker Tyler Oberg, last year's runner-up at 145 pounds. "It showed we are beat-able, and I don't know if I'd want us to be 9-0 right now. That would be a lot of pressure. We've come a long way since then."
Oberg and his wrestling comrades know a little something about pressure. On the mat, it's just athlete vs. athlete for six intense minutes. A quick letdown could open the door for his opponent to score the winning points or a match-ending pin.
In a 48-minute football game, one moment can still decide the outcome, so it figures that those who also excel on the mat have brought a similar mentality to the gridiron.
"I learned to control my nerves through wrestling at state, taking things one match at a time," Smith said. "With wrestling, especially, you can get so nervous in a buildup before a match. You learn how to control that. Mentally and physically, a lot of wrestling transfers to football."