With only a single blemish on this season’s record, Laramie’s Carless Looney enters this weekend’s Ron Thon Memorial Wrestling Invitational with confidence and determined to repeat last year’s victory at the “Best of the Best” tournament.
His thirst for competition put him in the mix at 145 pounds as a freshman, made him a serious contender at 170 as a sophomore, a state champion at 170 as a junior, and now the Class 4A favorite at 182.
While the Laramie standout laces his boots with a target on his back as he attempts to defend both his Ron Thon and state titles, a future teammate is out to prove he still belongs among the best.
Sheridan’s Hayden Hastings won a state title at 126 pounds as a freshman, finished second at 152 as a sophomore and went undefeated last year on the way to the 4A state championship at 160. He moved up to 170 for a new challenge this year, but suffered a leg injury in the second meet of the season.
After rigorous physical therapy and cardio, he was cleared to wrestle and, like Looney, returns to the Ron Thon with hopes of repeating as champion.
Both will be wrestling at the University of Wyoming next season, but until then they’ll both go for repeat championships. The funny thing is, their paths might have crossed in the past if Looney’s competitive drive hadn’t been so great.
Looney entered the 2014 state tournament as a 145-pound freshman. Instead of being intimidated by the experienced upperclassmen in his weight class, Looney took a unique approach.
“My goal when I started that year was to beat (Gillette’s) Alex Lacasse because he was the returning state champ,” Looney said. “So I worked hard all season to beat him.”
Looney made good on his dream by beating the Gillette standout in the semifinals at the Class 4A East Regionals.
The following weekend at the state tournament, Looney had strep throat and a 103-degree temperature. He still wrestled his way into the semifinals before losing to Bruce Lester of Evanston.
“After that I injury defaulted because I was too sick,” Looney said.
This set the stage for his sophomore year, where he had to decide which weight class to wrestle in. There were two options: compete against some familiar opponents at 152 or take on the challenge of competing at 160.
Looney chose to wrestle at 160 and, in the process, was in a different weight class than Hastings.
“(Gillette’s) Jordan Fischer was at 160 and he was the kid to beat that year, two-time state champ going for his third,” Looney said. “I said, ‘This is the kid that’s going to make me better.’
“I really just want to wrestle where the competition is.”
He and Fischer split the first two meetings that season before the Camel pinned him with 15 seconds remaining in the state championship match.
At that same meet, Hastings had been on his way to defending a state championship before losing to another Gillette veteran, Logan Wagoner, in the 152-pound title match.
With years of wrestling experience, Hastings started to travel to more than just Colorado for national meets. He began going to meets out East in hopes of facing some of the best that the nation has to offer.
The different competition helped him develop and when his family moved from Montana to Sheridan he found even more success.
“Once I got to high school I jumped up another level and started picking up national success,” Hastings said. “That just kicked up my hunger. From there I just took off.”
He carried that success over to his freshman season, where he won the state championship at 126.
After losing to Wagoner in the state finals the following season, he capped his undefeated junior campaign by winning all three of his matches at state by pinfall.
Hastings spent this past offseason at national tournaments again, furthering his reach for more challenges.
“You just have a lot more of that top-end competition,” Hastings said. “You’ll be seeing kids that are top in the nation in almost every match.”
He hovered around the national rankings until his injury to start this year.
There are still hurdles to climb in high school with Ron Thon and the state tournament later this month, but there’s already another set of challenges ahead for Hastings and Looney.
“I’ve always watched the NCAA Tournament on TV and said, ‘I want to be one of those wrestlers,’” Looney said.
Added Hastings: “Watching college wrestling, I kind of envisioned myself wrestling at that highest level for a national championship and that kind of set up a dream for myself.”
The Naval Academy recruited Looney heavily and was his top choice before Wyoming came calling and he met the Cowboys’ coaching staff. From there, the Navy was no longer his top option.
After a visit to the UniWyo Sports Complex and seeing what the Cowboys had to offer, Looney, who refers to the UW coaching staff as the “top guys in the nation,” was on the fence.
“What it really came down to,” he said, “(was) go 1,500 miles away or stay at home.”
Hastings didn’t have a lot of collegiate interest, but he did have a specific school where he wanted to wrestle. When he realized that may be unrealistic, he had already achieved enough to wrestle at a similar level.
“I was a big Penn State fan growing up but I knew that I really wasn’t, at the time, good enough to be recruited by Penn State,” Hastings said. “Wyoming started to come after me so they were definitely on my list.”
He keeps tabs on the Cowboys, checking Twitter at the wrestling meets he couldn’t compete in because of injury.
Now that he’s healthy, he’s ready to make his final stand before joining Looney in Laramie.