DENVER — There was a moment this season when Niwot senior Tommy Stager questioned everything he knew about the sport he loved.
He had just suffered a rare defeat at the hands of Greeley Central's Tony Uleszak and something just wasn't right.
"I was very discouraged at that moment and I felt like I wasn't enjoying the sport as much as I should be," he recalled. "It was a crushing feeling because I felt like I had put in so much effort and so much hard work and fallen short so many times."
It turned out to be the greatest thing that could have possibly happened to the Cougars star, who on Saturday night became the first champion at the school since Garin Daum in 1993 and stood atop the podium with an impressive 14-4 major decision over Mesa Ridge's Elijah Valdez in the 145 pound Class 4A state title match.
"It's kind of a melancholy feeling. On one hand I'm excited that I won a championship because it is something that I have been chasing for a really long time," said Stager, who has tested his mettle against the countries best this past year having wrestled matches in 11 different states over that time and winning over 150 matches. "I'm going to miss it. Bobby (Matthews) and Rudy (Ambriz) are some of the best coaches I've ever had."
It was Matthews, who was the voice of reason for Stager on that December night, and a huge reason Stager was able to re-focus his mind on the greater goal.
"We talked in the locker room just before the match and the thing I gave him was Abraham Lincoln's quote that if you give me six hours to chop down a tree, I'll sharpen my ax for four," Matthews said, "And that is what we have been working with this year and I told him in there, this is just another sharpening."
Ever the proficient wrestler on his feet — "It's no secret," Stager said — he stayed true to his form against Valdez.
He dictated the match from the get-go, scoring the first of his six takedowns in the first period and cutting Valdez loose for his only points.
"I knew if I stuck with that, wrestling on my feet and didn't let him wrestle in positions where he was dominant — I had read we he felt comfortable on top," said Stager, who started wrestling at age four and was a three-time state placer. "He didn't spend a single second of that match wrestling on top.
"And in the sport of wrestling, the guy who wins is the guy that puts himself in the most positions where he is going to be successful."
After his victory, Stager (45-2) wasted little time running over and giving a hug to his father Mark in the front row as well as his brothers Nick and Luke. Mark Stager has been with his youngest son for nearly every match he has wrestled in the last few years.
"Luke never made a state appearance so he was just excited to be here watching," said Tommy Stager, who will wrestle next season for the Air Force Academy. "It was Nick's dream to be a state champion and when he lost in the quarterfinals it broke my heart.
"But to be able to share that moment with them and my dad, who has been with me for the entire process is very special."
Stager finished his high school career with a 175-27 mark, and the most wins ever by a 4A wrestler.
Matthews is confident that Stager's victory will go a long way in resurrecting a Cougars program that was in need of a shot in the arm.
"It does a great deal for our program to show that we can produce a state champion," said Matthews, who said Daum was in the house rooting Tommy on. "It just shows that hard work does pay off."