The watershed day in Ridge Briggs’ career remains unchanged in his mind, and his coaches’, more than three years from the day everything changed.
Callous strokes of violent red paint broke the black and white monotony of the Riverton wrestling room even in 2017. In that room lined with cushions is where the fittingly nicknamed Wolverines went after each other. Head coach Jay Galey instructed his grapplers to start top-bottom drills that they weren’t allowed to stop until every wrestler starting in the bottom position broke free of their sparring partner.
A handful of duets continued their muscular ballet after 15 minutes. After 15 more there remained just Briggs under his opponent. Another 15 minutes left Briggs gasping for air and without victory against his upperclassmen teammates. He wasn’t done yet.
“I was definitely exhausted and broken,” Briggs remembered. “Just mentally broken and fatigued.”
Briggs was a freshman facing a wrestling room built upon Ron Thon culture. Since he started wrestling at 9 years old he’d learned that everything Riverton wrestlers did was built upon hard work. Briggs owned that. Through middle school he was a renowned wrestler statewide by virtue of his hard work and here he stood again on the precipice of an emotional chasm in search of an internal Hail Mary.
It was nearly an hour by Briggs’ estimates after the drill started before he managed an escape. His weakened, desperate movements created enough separation for the then-113-pound freshman to wiggle free. Galey whistled the drill dead, the only sound that could cut through Briggs’ exasperated gasps.
“I vividly remember putting my arm around him and telling him that anything can happen when you decide to make it happen,” Galey reminisced. “It went on for a long time.”
Galey admitted their relationship has been filled with ups and downs because of practices like that. In hindsight, the Riverton head coach knew he’d mentally broken the promising freshman. Briggs returned for practice the next day a changed man.
“I just came to practice every day after that knowing that it was going to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Briggs said. “Wrestling is very tough and that certain situation made me realize that tougher situations make you tougher.”
Briggs went on to win the state championship by a 2-1 decision. He fulfilled his immediate potential and brought gold to a promising team.
Admittedly, he needed a reminder to focus after that. Following a successful sophomore season he entered the state tournament as the state’s top seed with a 34-8 record at 132 pounds. He lost focus.
A semifinal upset ended Briggs’ repeat dreams and forced him to settle for third. His hard work wasn’t done.
“I didn’t take it one match at a time,” Briggs recalled. “I didn’t truly do that. When you’re in the postseason you need to be 100 percent mentally ready for every single match.”
He internalized that lesson, just like he did at that momentous practice. He won the 145-pound title as a junior and again as a senior back in February. Briggs went 93-6 over his final two seasons to finish with an overall record of 174-22 while at Riverton. He also got to win the Ron Thon belt in front of his hometown atmosphere as a senior, a lasting memory in his mind.
“Honestly, he goes down as the best guy to ever wrestle in this town,” Galey said. “He legit should have been a four-timer. But that didn’t happen, so he was going to make sure that he was going to win it three times.”
That’s left Briggs with a mysterious future. He hadn’t made his decision by the state wrestling tournament or before the Earth-halting spread of the coronavirus. He’d attracted attention from Chadron State, other Division II programs and a handful of NAIA programs. His heart however, drew closest to Western Wyoming Community College — the top-ranked junior college program in the country — and the University of Wyoming. He told the Star-Tribune that while his decision isn’t official, he’s decided to join the Cowboys.
Broken and rebuilt. The Riverton senior has always found an answer.
“He’s a guy that, from Day 1, we just pushed to the limit and, honestly, broke him a few times,” Galey said. “He’d always find a way to respond. That’s the upside in him.”
Follow sports reporter Brady Oltmans on Twitter @BradyOltmans
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