NIWOT — To the best of Mark Stager's recollection, his son Tommy wrestled somewhere in the neighborhood of 181 matches last season and he was in the gym for 170 of them.
Wrestling has become a way of life with Mark and Barbara Stager for the last 12 years, sending three sons — Luke, Nick and Tommy — through Niwot. To date they have made six trips to the state tournament between Nick and Tommy and are hopeful that their final trip concludes the story with a happy ending.
"There's a light at the end of the tunnel and I'm not so sure I like it," Mark Stager said. "It's been fun. We jumped into it with both feet and learned a lot as a parent and as a coach; and I'm going to miss it for sure."
Tommy Stager enters his final season for the Cougars with a clear mind and an eye on a coveted state title that has eluded every Niwot wrestlers since 1993.
The youngest Stager recently gave his commitment to head coach Sam Barber and his Air Force Academy wrestling team, a move that should clear his mind even more when he gets on the mat.
"He knows where he is going and he can basically prepare and use the season to get better for what he knows he needs to be," Niwot coach Bobby Matthews said. "The don't recruit Division I wrestlers right now, they recruit guys who have the ability to become a Division I wrestler and I think he is close."
Stager made it all the way to the state semifinals last year at 138 pounds in Class 4A before bowing out in a tough 3-2 decision to eventual champion Justin Davis of Pueblo County. He would rally for a third place finish over Battle Mountain's Jesus Morales.
In 2016-17, Stager will bump up to 145 pounds.
"People like my parents and my coach all have high expectations and I think that is great and I have to prove to them that I am capable of meeting those expectations, and even exceeding them in certain areas" said Stager, who should eclipse is older brother Nick's (a three-year wrestler at Harvard) career win total of 134 this season.
A tireless trainer off the mat, Stager relentless energy on the mat is predicated on the fact that his opponent should never have a free moment. He goes and goes and has won a lot of match by simply wearing out the opposition.
"That constant pressure, he really started doing that last year," said Matthews, who will have a roster capable of going two-deep at each of the 14 weight classes. "It comes down to a lot of fitness and conditioning and training his mind to never stop and training his body to wrestle at that pace, too, and kind of break guys.
"He wants to win, but he also wants to break them and wants them to be exhausted after the first period. Constant, in-your-face, relentless pressure."
It would appear that USAFA, which mom had to be convinced of before he committed, would be the perfect fit for Stager. And not just for the wrestling — he made his decision with the thought of getting a world class education first.
"All the opportunities that come with going to the Air Force Academy and the integrity and honor that they teach is something that I want to be a part of," he said.