Wrangler wrestling trio garners All-State honors
PINEDALE – Each match grew in intensity as Pinedale High School junior Jake Hammer battled his way through the 132-pound bracket at the 3A Boys’ State Wrestling Championships in Casper on Feb. 24-25.
Squaring off against Buffalo’s Joseph Conners in the quarterfinals, Hammer pinned his opponent in 57 seconds. Hammer advanced to the semifinals to grapple Evanston’s Braunson Sims.
“My semis match was pretty tough,” said Hammer. “Braunson is a tough kid. He lasted for awhile with me in the first period until I eventually took him down (at 1:13).”
The path to the championship round and a state title lay open. On the other side of the bracket, Hammer’s friend from Green River, Conner Todd, had also progressed to the finals.
Hammer defeated Todd at the 3A West Regional Tournament in Evanston on Feb. 17 by a 14-4 major decision. Hammer knew the championship bout at State would be close.
The waiting game began. The semifinals were on Friday with the championships scheduled for late Saturday.
“I was pretty nervous beforehand, as you would expect,” Hammer said. “I would try to just close my eyes and focus on myself for a second – let all the distractions go away.”
The showdown for the 132-pound state title finally approached. Hammer and Todd stepped onto the mat.
“I told Conner good luck, shook his hand,” said Hammer.
The referee signaled the beginning of the bout.
“Right before a match, I just clear my mind and go with the flow,” Hammer said. “When the whistle blows, there are no more jitters. It’s just game on.”
Todd scored first with a takedown for a 2-1 lead at the end of the first period.
“I realized I needed to flip things, change the pace, fix my errors and battle back,” said Hammer. “I knew the match wasn’t over. It’s never over until the whistle blows.”
Hammer pulled ahead, 5-1, in an explosive second period and held Todd to a single point in the third period.
When the final buzzer sounded, Hammer led, 6-4, capturing the state title and All-State honors. The referee raised Hammer’s arm in triumph.
“It was relieving and exciting,” Hammer said. “The first thing I wanted to do was see my family. I got off the mat and hugged my dad. I climbed up into the stands and hugged my mom and my sister.”
An unforgettable win
Sophomore Ryan Nutt and his opponent in the 120-pound state championships, Green River’s Axel Mackinnon, had history.
Nutt went undefeated at the Thoman-Jackman Duel Tournament in Green River on Jan. 13-14, qualifying for the Best of the Best round where he beat Mackinnon, 8-7.
The following weekend, at Lander, Mackinnon defeated Nutt in another close final round, 4-3.
The two faced off again at the Regional Tournament on Feb. 17. Mackinnon narrowly won by a 6-5 decision.
Nutt and Mackinnon fought their way through the 120-pound division at State for a final showdown in the championship round.
“I expected (Mackinnon) to be in the finals at State,” said Nutt.
Nutt shook Mackinnon’s hand.
“Sometimes, before a match, I’ll think about my first move,” Nutt said. “But then I try to clear my mind. If you’re thinking, you’re stinking.”
Mackinnon won the first period by a single point, 3-2.
“I was trying to shoot, trying to take him down,” said Nutt. “Bobby Hammer (a volunteer coach) told me to grab (Mackinnon’s) arm, drag and try to get a single leg. In the second period, I chose down and got an escape.”
The second period ended in a 3-3 draw.
“In the third period, (Mackinnon) stood up because he chose bottom and I got the takedown with 10 seconds left. I just kept shooting throughout the match. One of the shots paid off in the end when we were both dead tired.”
Nutt won the state championship at 120 pounds by a 5-4 decision, snagging All-State honors.
“The match was close,” Nutt said. “I was trying to keep my cool (after the match). My opponent worked his butt off as well. I tried to keep it in, but I just won State. That’s a feeling you’re never going to forget.”
Overcoming an obstacle
Freshman Wylee Willson suffered a concussion before the postseason and was forced to sit out two weeks of competition. Willson was cleared to return to the mats for the Pinedale Invite on Feb. 11.
“I got back just in time, but I didn’t have much time to wrestle,” Willson said. “So I was definitely nervous coming into Regionals and State.”
At Regionals, Willson grappled Cody’s Ty Peterson through three close periods before Peterson pinned Willson at 5:58.
Willson advanced quickly through the 113-pound bracket at State, pinning both his opponents in the quarterfinals and semifinals in under 1 minute. He found himself in the championship round pitted against Peterson. Willson came prepared, though.
“My dad and I went back and watched the video from Regionals,” Willson said. “We wrote down what I did well, what I needed to work on.”
Willson walked onto the championship mat, shook Peterson’s hand and took a deep breath.
“I don’t really think about what I’m going to do in the match,” said Willson. “I just focus on being aggressive and get out there and wrestle.”
Willson outscored Peterson in the first period, 2-1.
“I got a takedown and then (Peterson) escaped,” Willson recalled. “In the second period, I chose bottom, got a reversal and then he escaped again. I got a takedown. At that point, it was 6-3 (in Willson’s favor).”
By the end of the third period, the state title was within sight.
“With 15 seconds left in the match, I had (Peterson) buckled down,” Willson said. “With 2 seconds left, he gave up.”
Willson snagged the championship and All-State honors by an 8-4 decision, one of two freshman to earn a state title in 2023.
When asked how it felt to win his first high-school championship Willson simply replied, “It was great!”
The path to success
Hammer, Nutt and Willson each began wrestling shortly after they learned to walk.
“I was 4 when I started,” said Hammer. “My sister wrestled when she was younger. She encouraged me to do it as well.”
Nutt and Willson joined the Pinedale Pummelers wrestling club when Willson was in kindergarten and Nutt in first grade.
“We’ve been wrestling together ever since,” said Nutt.
“My dad always wanted me to wrestle and I just got hooked,” said Willson.
Hammer wrestled for the USA Wrestling program and at Pinedale Middle School.
“I wasn’t the greatest wrestler when I was younger,” Hammer said. “In seventh or eighth grade, I won the middle school state title for the first time. Then I got obsessed with my potential. I knew what I could do. My dad showed me what I could do. My mom and my sister knew what I could do. And I believed in myself, so I pushed through and stuck with it. Here I am.”
Nutt and Willson also found success through USA Wrestling and at Pinedale Middle School. Nutt won the middle school state championship twice. Willson secured the middle school state title in eighth grade. Both Nutt and Willson qualified to compete for Team Wyoming at the Middle School National Duals in Iowa.
Wrestling involves stamina, strength and technical skill.
“Everyone needs cardio and strength in order to wrestle,” said Hammer. “But I think technicality is crucial to wrestling.”
Speed also plays a role.
“Jake (Hammer) went up a level this year,” Nutt said. “When he was wrestling, his speed increased, but also his grip, which helped him. If you’re fast enough to get the move, you’re pretty well set.”
The Wrangler wrestling squad honed its skills through live wrestling exercises in the practice room.
“Getting into a (live wrestling) match, not knowing what your opponent is going to do, and going through your moves, helps you prepare for meets,” explained Willson.
The All-State wrestling trio singled out the Tournament of Champions (TOC) in Vernal, Utah, in early January as a season highlight.
“We see a whole bunch of new competition at the TOC,” said Hammer. “It’s always great to go to different places and meet new wrestlers.”
Teams from Colorado, Utah and Wyoming participated in the TOC.
“There were a lot of good wrestlers at TOC,” Willson added.
The annual Ron Thon Tournament in Riverton on Jan. 27-28 is the largest meet in Wyoming before State. Wrestlers are thrown into brackets against athletes from all four classifications.
“You wrestle everybody – 2A, 3A, 4A,” said Nutt. “I wrestled the kid that won the (state championship) in 4A and the 4A kid that got third (at State).”
The season alternates between bracket-style tournaments and duels against other teams. Both formats have their advantages.
“I like duels because your whole team is there cheering you on,” said Willson. “But tournaments are fun, too, because you never know exactly who you’re going to wrestle.”
Wrestling takes a significant time commitment. Hammer, Nutt and Willson each attended camps or weight lifting programs during the offseason to stay in shape.
A passion for the sport makes the hours, weeks, months and years of blood, sweat and tears worth it.
“I love wrestling,” said Willson. “It’s fun to travel and go to tournaments, see new places and wrestle new kids.”
Hammer thanked his parents, sister, coaches and practice partners for inspiring him to improve. Nutt expressed gratitude to the Wrangler coaching staff and his parents and uncles for their support. Willson gave a shoutout to his teammates, coaches, parents and God for “giving me the skill and gift to wrestle.”