Before last season, Nick Baker figured it was time to join the big boys. So the longtime wrestling coach at Lewis-Palmer took his team to the Old Chicago Northern Colorado Christmas Tournament, one of the most competitive prep wrestling tournaments around.
You see, it's not for everyone.
"It's a really competitive tournament," said Baker, who last summer was elevated to Rangers athletic director, a move that has the school searching for a wrestling replacement in time for next season. "We've always sought out tough competition, but it took a while to get a team that we could take up there and make it worth their while. You don't want to take a team up there and be two-and-out and be done on the first day."
This year's event, formerly held at Island Grove Regional Park in Greeley, has a new venue at Loveland's Budweiser Events Center. A total of 67 teams and some 750 wrestlers are scheduled to compete at the two-day event, which starts at 8 a.m. Friday.
According to the tournament's promotional material, 14 schools from Colorado ranked in the top 10 of their respective classes are set to attend, along with 270 ranked individuals and 59 grapplers ranked among the top three.
One of those, Coronado junior Jess Hankin, looks forward to testing himself against the best. At last year's tournament in Greeley, Hankin placed fifth in the 113-pound weight class, then went on to win the state championship at the Pepsi Center two months later.
"It's a hard one, one that definitely shows where you are," said Hankin, who has moved up to 132 pounds for his junior season. "It gives you a lot of perspective where you are currently, and what you need to work on when you're going up against some of the toughest guys in the state."
In addition to Lewis-Palmer and Coronado, a handful of Pikes Peak region teams are headed north: Discovery Canyon, Doherty, Liberty, Palmer Ridge and Woodland Park.
In the state tournament, the top 16 wrestlers in each weight class fill out the competitive brackets. At Loveland, it's super-sized into 64-man brackets that mean some athletes will have to win six consecutive matches to claim the top prize.
But winning isn't the only way to measure success.
"I'm big on intangibles," fourth-year Liberty coach Shawn Springsteen said. "I'm a little more of the John Wooden philosophy; I want to see attitude and effort. If I see guys battle with attitude and effort, the winning generally takes care of itself. If they compete against a state champion and go the six minutes and score a few points, that to me is a victory you can build on."
Springsteen, like Baker, only recently saw a team fit for competition at the next level. Now, it's time to prove it belongs, even if none of his Lancers stands on the top step of the podium on Saturday.
"When I started at Liberty four years ago, I think it was safe to say they weren't ready for that level of a tournament," said Springsteen, whose team will compete at the tournament for a third time. "This tournament really tests a guy's mettle. We're trying to build confidence through aggressive scheduling, and go into the (winter) break and be able to evaluate where everyone is."