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It's Payton Tucker's goal to win a third state title. Few stand in his way
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PREP WRESTLING

It's Payton Tucker's goal to win a third state title. Few stand in his way

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A quick wrist spin around a handful of hair draws long black locks into a makeshift tail. Watch for that hair tie. That means it’s showtime. Payton Tucker stands out from those around him. He’s 6-foot-2 and weighs in just shy of the 182 pounds he wrestles at, down from the 210 pounds he put on during football season. When his hair’s down, hanging down to his shoulders, he resembles the titular character in the original Predator movie. When his hair goes up, he becomes a predator.

It’s the first round of the Class 4A West Regional. The two-time state champion has already clinched a spot in the state tournament. But he’s not bothered with simply making the tournament. The multi-year star, another chapter in Green River’s prestigious wrestling program, yearns for a final state championship before wrestling at Western Wyoming Community College — the top-ranked junior college wrestling program in the country. He can’t win that trophy now. But he can take another step toward it.

Tucker, in his preferred tight T-shirt and shorts combo, instinctively shakes his limbs out a few times before stepping onto the mat. His 31-2 record has earned him the top seed up to that point, meaning his first opponent would be a Kelly Walsh junior with just two matches to his name. Tucker looks across at his opponent with the same steely gaze as he looks at everyone else. This is his match. He doesn’t say it — it’s already internalized.

The whistle blows. Technique-perfected strength allows Tucker to shoot on his opponent and his legs guide his body into position. He’s scores the takedown and goes for the pin. Within seconds Tucker’s on top with his opponent staring at the lights. Tucker’s eyes dart up to the referee. Call it. He’s pinned, come on and call it. The senior remains in firm control, waiting for the referee. His eyes look up more incredulously each second the match continues. Mercifully, the whistle leads to a slap to the mat. It’s over 67 seconds after it began.

Tucker gets up, takes the hand raise, congratulates the opposing coaches and walks into pats on the shoulder from his Green River supporters. He’s already done for the night.

It’s the first of three matches — and three pinfall victories — for him at regionals. Each challenger lasts no more than 67 seconds.

“I’m hoping to get a regional title and a state title,” he says afterwards. “That’s all I’ve been focusing on the last few weeks: just being ready and prepared because it’s up to me if I go get that podium.”

That’s his match. He approaches every bout like he owns the outcome. For the most part, he does. An unstoppable force yet to meet its immovable object.

•••Green River’s always been known as a wrestling town. Payton Tucker was simply born into it. The Wolves are the winningest Class 4A wrestling program. They won 15 of their 17 championships before Tucker was even born. Wrestling was the sport of choice in Green River. So Tucker started on the mat when he was 5 years old. Even then he was bigger, stronger and successful more often than his peers.

He liked football, too. After all, he was another kid born into rural America. So he didn’t put much merit into those formative years on the mat. But Green River was a wrestling town and being a budding wrestler in town brought attention. That attention brought competition. That brought more focus into beating his next opponent. Iron sharped iron.

“I always had people to work with in the room and always get better,” Tucker reminisced. “I always appreciate that stuff, having other people there that worship the sport like you do. It’s nice to know you’ve got guys on the same mission.”

Even at that point Tucker realized he questioned himself before each match. Is this next kid any good? Should I study him? What if he looks good? Tucker thought of himself as a neurotic young wrestler. (“I was always freaking out.”)

Football became his focus going into high school. He simply continued wrestling because he liked the feeling the sport gave him. His sophomore year changed all of that.

Tucker realized midway through his second high school wrestling season that he had only lost once. Wrestling against older, more experienced opponents at 182 pounds with just one loss must have meant he was doing something right. He re-dedicated himself to wrestling. He finished 42-1 and a state champion — a much more satisfying result than the bronze he settled for the previous year.

Tucker’s sophomore year was Josh Wisniewski’s first season taking over the Green River wrestling program. He and assistant coach Adam Baker were already familiar with the newly crowned state champion from coaching him in middle school. They knew the potential the 182-pounder possessed.

“He’s been great and he keeps getting better every year,” Wisniewski smiled. “Glad he’s on our team.”

That’s when coaches saw Tucker’s signature high-intensity wrestling mindset become contagious. He left his neurotic phase in the past and approached his junior year with comfortable expectations. He’d already won those matches before so he expected to do it all over again.

He suffered just one loss to an in-state opponent during his junior year and finished 36-4 with a second Ron Thon championship and another state title.

“I was just out there wrestling my style and see how it goes for me,” Tucker said. “I was just doing me.”

He relished his successes and position. Then he turned his attention toward his senior future — a legacy left to be cemented.

***

Surgery stemming from an injury he suffered (and played through) during football season almost compromised the start of wrestling season. But Tucker was medically cleared and returned to wrestling practice the week before the team’s first tournament. It was the Tournament of Champions in Reno, Nevada. And Tucker spent most of the week riding the stationary bike and not doing what wrestlers typically like doing: wrestling.

Tucker entered the tournament at 195 pounds, still cutting from his football weight. His natural abilities and instincts carried him into the quarterfinals, where he faced Laith Gilmore of California. Gilmore won on a takedown with 8 seconds left in sudden-victory time. It was one of those rare instances where Tucker couldn’t seize victory. But he hadn’t really been practicing either (and finished sixth in the tournament) so he didn’t put much stock into that result.

“I don’t really put much weight in that loss,” Tucker said. “It happened.”

Months of winning passed before the Rockwell Rumble in Farmington, Utah. Tucker started hot and won his first four matches to make the finals. There he met Isaiah Salazar of Windsor, Colorado. Salazar won by technical fall. That was a humbling result, although it was noteworthy. Salazar is the fourth-ranked wrestler in the country who became a four-time state champion in Colorado last weekend and recently signed to wrestle at the University of Minnesota.

“So I wasn’t too mad about that one either,” Tucker stated.

He found redemption two weeks later with a third consecutive Ron Thon championship. Tucker cruised through the competition with three pins before the finals. He thought he’d wrestle Kelly Walsh senior Kole Kraus. He kind of hoped he’d wrestle Kraus. Instead, Tucker stared across at Moorcroft senior Rowdy Pfieil, who earned a 7-5 decision over Kraus in the semifinals.

Tucker and Pfeil have been separated by 400 miles since before they started wrestling each other as kids. Pfeil won every time.

This year’s meeting in Riverton could have gone the same way. Pfeil came out to a 2-1 lead, Tucker countered with a take down and Pfeil escaped. Even at 3-all in the final period, Tucker scored the match-deciding two-point nearfall 28 seconds in and stayed in control the rest of the match. He finally cleared the hurdle.

“We’ve wrestled our whole lives and I’ve never beat him,” Tucker said. “He beat me when we were kids so it was nice to get a little redemption there.”

Just prior to that week, Tucker signed his letter of intent to wrestle at nearby Western Wyoming. The Mustangs have spent most of the season as the No. 1-ranked JUCO team in the country. Western Wyoming head coach Art Castillo witnessed the multi-champion in-person and knew he wanted that intensity in his program.

That’s just one of the many of the components coaches around Tucker have seen over the years.

“He’s always worked really hard in the room, he’s a good kid, never on the ineligibility list, works hard, he cares about his teammates,” Wisniewski explained. “Western Wyoming is getting a good wrestler next year.”

***

In the lead-up to his next match, Tucker typically finds which mat he’ll wrestle on and stroll over minutes before he’s scheduled to compete. Then he’ll shed his hoodie and sweats and tuck them safely away with his bag. His friendly smile gets replaced by a neutral focus. Then comes the hair tie, followed by unwavering intensity.

Each match is mostly lopsided and finishes within seconds of its beginning. Tucker clocks in and he clocks out whether it’s a weekend meet or a regional championship. Business as usual. So what motivates someone who’s essentially unrivaled in Wyoming? All that’s left.

“There’s not very many people who have won three state titles, so that would mean a lot,” Tucker said. “It’s a goal I’ve set for myself since my first one my sophomore year. It would be a long three years that finally paid off.”

That title hangs like a brass ring over the Casper Events Center this weekend. There are four matches, four wins, separating himself from that goal.

In addition to individual accolades, Tucker may provide valuable points for the Green River team. The Wolves are the top-ranked team in the state and seeking their first team championship since Tucker’s freshman season. There’s no coincidence there.

“He’s intense and the other guys can feed off that intensity and his aggressiveness,” Wisniewski said. “He’s a good teammate and a good leader. Hopefully those other guys will see how he goes about his work ethic and everyday business and that rubs off on them a bit.”

Tucker admits that whether he’s able to achieve that last goal comes down to himself. He’s set his own standard and already holds wins over the other top-seeded wrestlers in his bracket. With over a decade worth of wins, accolades and championships already in his trophy case, he’s no victim to complacency. He’s not built that way.

“The fire’s still lit,” he said. “I’ve got another goal and I need to go get that before I’m done.”

It’s his match. His title. Time to prove it.

Follow sports reporter Brady Oltmans on Twitter @BradyOltmans

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High School Sports Reporter

Brady Oltmans reports on high school and local sports. He joined the Star-Tribune in July 2016 after covering prep sports and college soccer in Nebraska. He also contributes to University of Wyoming sports coverage. He and his dog live in Casper.

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