NIWOT — Tommy Stager had played out the whole state championship experience in his mind ... many times over.
And when it finally happened last month at the Pepsi Center, the flood of emotions seemed to overwhelm him and it took some time for everything to set in.
"I had a lot of nights thinking about what it was going to feel like when the dream finally came true and it didn't feel at all like I anticipated it feeling," said Stager, who earned BoCoPreps Wrestler of the Year honors for a fantastic season that was capped with a 14-4 victory over Mesa Ridge's Elijah Valdez in the Class 4A 145 pound state championship match.
"There were times where I was sitting on my couch and I was so overwhelmed with the prospect of it that I would start tearing up. But as soon as it happened, I felt like it was supposed to happen and that it was just another step."
For Stager, the championship was merely a stepping stone to what he and many around him think could be bigger things in the sport.
Bound for the United States Air Force Academy this summer to begin basic training, Stager will leave behind a legacy of greatness at Niwot that won't soon be forgotten.
Before his championship run, Stager was a three-time state placer. It was those close calls that had him both questioning himself and served as motivation.
The climax of the questioning came early in the season at a midweek dual against Greeley Central. Stager was coming off a disappointing loss to Mountain View's Erik Contreras at a tournament in Cheyenne and looking to get back to his winning way against the Wildcats' Tony Uleszak.
But Uleszak, using what Tommy's dad Mark called Tony's "twister," caught him and pinned him; handing him his last loss of the season (he went 44-2) and just the 27th of his prep career against a 4A-best 175 wins.
"I was very discouraged at that moment and I felt like I wasn't enjoying the sport as much as I should be," said Stager, who started wrestling when he was just four years old. "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."
But in the moments that followed that match, Niwot coach Bobby Matthews — who was instrumental in Tommy's mental approach to the sport — helped him understand what the priority was and turned his focus into reaching his goal.
"We talked in the locker room just before the (championship) 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.
"And he stayed true to it."
Stager — whose laundry list of influences in the sport include Mile High Wrestling Club's Tom Clum — is an Eagle Scout, holds a 4.3 grade point average in the IB program at Niwot, plays trombone in the jazz band and in his spare time designs, builds, and flies radio controlled airplanes.
Something Mark says, "make's him a natural fit for the Air Force Academy."
Tommy's lasting legacy at Niwot should be felt for years.
"Niwot is known for its athletics. We have great programs from cross country, gymnastics and swimming," he said. "And it wasn't like I filled in a missing piece, but I put myself on the level that the athletic department demands of its programs.
"I'm glad I was able to make that contribution."