More than a month after the Colorado high school wrestling season concluded, Cheyenne Mountain wrestlers are still putting in work on the mat — and reaping the benefits.
Last week Cheyenne Mountain’s Nico Gagliardi and Billy Maddox, both freshmen, became the program’s first wrestling All-Americans after a weekend competing at the National High School Coaching Association national wrestling tournament. Gagliardi placed third in the 182-pound freshman tournament, while Maddox took sixth in the same class.
The Indians brought nine athletes, the program’s largest group, to the national tournament, which featured 4,763 of the nation’s top wrestlers. According to coach Tyler Seaney, the school has entered 14 athletes in the tournament in the last few years, but never brought home an All-American — until now.
“It’s the only way to become a recognized high school All-American, and we’ve been to the tournament for several years and we’ve never had a kid win more than like two matches,” Seaney said. “The tournament is so incredibly tough that we don’t take everybody, we take our studs and see what we can do.”
Gagliardi made it to the 195-pound Class 4A title match in his state debut, and said while the national tournament was much bigger, he didn’t let the immense pressure get to him.
"I definitely thought it was intimidating at the beginning because I had never gone to a tournament that large before, but I knew my only responsibility was to wrestle my heart out and do the best I can," Gagliardi said.
Gagliardi stormed through the first two rounds defeating opponents with first- and second-period pins.
Gagliardi suffered a hard-fought loss with a late third-period pin by Virginia's Royce Hall in 5:54 with the score tied 6-6. But he battled back through the consolation bracket to eventually take down Ashton Davis of Tennessee with a third-period pin for bronze.
“I thought he wrestled very motivated, and ended up losing a crazy match in the quarterfinals where we probably should have won,” Seaney said. “But he looked really motivated, and angry after that, and he looked really dominant all the way back to third against some really tough competition.”
Gagliardi said his quarterfinal loss was his most memorable of the weekend.
"It was just an important moment in the weekend because I had lost and there were several matches I still had to wrestle, so it kind of set my mindset for the next matches after that to pick it up," Gagliardi said. "I told myself, 'Pick it up, Nico, this is important to you and you didn't come all this way not to do well.'"
Maddox wrestled the first half of the season bouncing between 160 and 170 pounds, but shortly before regionals, he hit a growth spurt, keeping him from competing on the varsity level through postseason.
But Seaney said he used his premature end to his first high school season as motivation at nationals.
“I found it kind of funny because I couldn’t win a medal at the state level, but I could win one nationally,” Maddox said.
Seaney said, “I think he was really bummed about being pulled from the lineup, especially with how good he is. ... That was his chance to make his mark, and this was kind of a redemption tournament for him.”
Maddox collected two pins in the first two rounds of the tournament, then pinned Maryland’s Chase Schultz in 4:53 with a close 7-6 score.
“I went into my quarterfinals like super angry, not using my brain at all and I put myself on my back a few times, and near the end of the second it was 6-2 and I was like, ‘I’m not going to win this one,’” Maddox said. “But I started using my brain again and I threw the kid and made it 7-6 and in the third period I pinned him. It was like oh, ‘Hey maybe I should use my brain more than brawn.’”
He then fell in the national semifinals and later in the fifth-place match to Hall, who earlier defeated Gagliardi, 8-5.
While it’s a big step for the Cheyenne Mountain wrestling team to have two All-Americans, it’s even more perplexing to have the athletes place as freshmen, and in the same weight class.
“It’s unreal, and unheard of, really,” Seaney said. “Usually a team goes in to that tournament happy to have an All-American or two, and we had two at the same weight, which is weird.”
For Seaney, who is at the helm of one of the largest programs in the state, with nearly 50 wrestlers on the roster this season, his freshmen’s success on a national level will only help the program continue to grow.
“I can’t put it into words how big this is (for our program),” Seaney said. “We have one freshman who is now the third-best in the country, and another one that’s sixth. That’s huge. I think it’s really neat and it gives us a lot of clout. It’s just another thing we can talk about to promote our program and try to turn those into state titles.”