DENVER — Jake Kay was running the mat, shaking his arms loose just like all the other competitors preparing for the opening night session of the 4A state wrestling tournament at the Pepsi Center. With his Evergreen Cougars’ warm-up jacket on and his first match of the three-day tournament still more than 90 minutes away, Kay showed the focus that has identified him in his senior season.
“I’ve just been calm and relaxed. That was the key I think. I’m not stressing out because it’s state. I’ve been to bigger tournaments before,” the Evergreen 126-pounder said. “What I told my coaches is that it’s not as bright in here anymore. It’s not as big of a deal.”
But it was still a big deal. Be it the concussion that shortened his trip to state after just one match two years ago or the nagging shoulder injuries last year, Kay still had something to prove, especially to himself.
Kay’s moment of truth at this year’s tournament came two days later — on Feb. 23 — in the third round of the consolation bracket. His dream of a state title were already dashed and he was 15 seconds away from not placing at all. Pueblo Central’s Brandon Aragon held a 3-0 lead when Kay got a reversal, but he still needed one more point to force sudden-death overtime or two more to win.
“I got that reversal and saw that there were eight seconds left. I knew that I’ve got to turn him right here. I put everything I had into that tilt,” Kay said.
Two seconds and two back points later Kay (39-9) knew he was going to place. He was guaranteed no worse than sixth place, which is where he finished.
“It’s awesome. Obviously, I wanted to get first. I’m happy that I placed,” said Kay, who repeated as a 4A Jeffco League champion this season and placed third at regionals.
It was quite the change in feelings considering how scary the situation was for him after his quarterfinal-round defeat to Dalton Hannigan of Palisade. Hannigan scored a 9-4 decision to push Kay into the second round of the consolation bracket. Kay needed at least two victories to earn a medal. He couldn’t afford another setback.
It didn’t appear that he would lose to Hannigan, either, after scoring the first two points of the mat on a reversal to open the third period. But Hannigan quickly reversed the momentum, got three near-fall points and a late takedown for seven of his nine points.
“I think (Kay) wrestled, for the most part, that match real solid. He just had that one lapse and got a little lazy. He got a hold of something and tried to hold on to it. There was too much time to do that there,” Evergreen head coach Lane Williams said.
It seemingly was the polar opposite of what Kay did in his tournament-opening 6-0 win over Air Academy’s Tyler Hanenberg. In that one he was aggressive, but not overly aggressive, while biding his time for the opportunities that would eventually come his way.
“He knows what he’s got to do. If you quit on a move than you’re going to be losing points. He knows that he’s not in a bad position. If the kid’s got some advantage don’t let go of what you have. A lot of times in scramble positions you can come out on top,” Williams said.
Kay didn’t win again after his victory over Aragon, but he didn’t need to. He was already assured a spot on the medal podium at the end of the tournament. That, be it first place or sixth, was where he wanted to be all along.
Contact Michael Hicks at email@example.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 15.