No matter how hard Ladd Bunker tried to put a rosy spin on it, the situation was disheartening.
After a back and shoulder injury he believed was minor sidelined him for a few weeks last season, he was eager to get back on the wrestling mat. His older brother, Clay, was on an undefeated warpath and a shoo-in for a state tournament berth.
Because Clay was a senior, Ladd, then a sophomore, realized this was their only chance to go to state as a tandem.
Then came the bad news.
Ladd briefly returned after sustaining the injury in the Boulder Valley Invite, but the ailment -- officially labeled a herniated left disc in his upper neck -- got worse as one of the discs was swelling and pinching a nerve in his biceps and shoulder.
"I didn't think it was that big of a deal until it started to get kind of worse and I could see no improvement," Bunker said.
He went to a specialist and was told to shut it down for the season. As much as he tried to tell himself that the season would be about Clay,
who finished second at state at 152 pounds, it was a challenging time.
"It was heartbreaking to go every tournament, every Saturday and watch Clay and all my teammates," Bunker said. "It just left me with a really bad taste in my mouth. The worst thing was not getting to wrestle with my brother his senior year."
Bunker has carried those feelings of angst into this season and is back with a vengeance. Wrestling at 160, he took a 13-0 record into the University of Northern Colorado Christmas Tournament the final weekend before the break.
He went 6-2 in the potent bracket that included 5A competition, finishing in seventh place. He entered the holidays 19-2 overall.
"He's come along so well that some of us think he's better than Clay now," Erie coach Steve Gratton said. "He's got a different style, but he's unique in his own way. He does a lot of good things."
While teammate Brandon Wetsch also is off to a sizzling start after jumping from 120 to 132, Bunker has another teammate to commiserate with. William Schell also was sidelined because of a back injury last season and is back and wrestling well.
Schell's triplet sisters, Kathryn and Anna, play basketball at Longmont. Kathryn is averaging 20 points a game for the 5-1 Trojans.
Bunker was officially cleared to return to wrestling activity in March, and has rededicated himself ever since, focusing exclusively on the sport.
Now it's seven days a week for Bunker, who wrestles at Mile High Wrestling Club on Sundays. After having wrestling taken away, he's absorbing every ounce of it he can get.
"All summer was nothing but practice and lifting, getting my neck stronger and getting my back stronger," he said. "It was all about coming back and making a name for myself after really just a stupid injury."
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