State Wrestling: Gardner, Funk and Valentin-Bradford all go for gold

Feb. 17—DENVER — In a long line of Funk brothers, all of them wrestlers, none had ever won a state championship. It turns out they saved the best for last.

On Saturday night at Ball Arena, in front of a large crowd, Legacy senior Quinn Funk secured his second state title in as many years, first in the 190-pound division of Class 5A, and then in the 215-pound weight class in his final season.

He pinned Cherry Creek's Jake Howell with 24 seconds left in the second period to end his high school career with a glittering 45-0 record. Nobody could touch him.

"It's real nice just sealing it and making sure there's no doubt," Quinn said.

His eldest brother, 25-year-old Nolan, served as his sounding board all year long, and has reveled in the strides Quinn has been able to make, even after he won his first gold.

"I was just telling him, even this season, him at the beginning of the season with me wrestling with him to the end of that season, it's been like night and day," Nolan said. "He just keeps getting better and better. You think he's gonna hit a ceiling, but he never does.

"You always tell him stuff and you never think he's listening, but then you'll be wrestling with him and he hits what you just were trying to show him. He's just like a sponge. He absorbs everything."

A likely comeback

The last time Lyons senior Jaden Gardner faced off in a Class 2A state championship match, he left crushed. Buena Vista's David Arellano outlasted him 4-2 to hand him the silver.

On Saturday night at Ball Arena, a year later, he left no doubt who would be standing on top of that 165-pound podium. Almost as if the fate of Wray's Casey Midcap was already written in history, Gardner pinned him in just 62 seconds, then immediately leaped into the arms of his coach, Gary Gantzer.

He ended his high school career rocketing straight to the top, using that snub in 2023 as his jet fuel.

"I was just showing how excited I was about winning that. We've been through a lot — sophomore year, not making it to the finals to junior year winning (semifinals) and then coming up short (in finals)," Gardner said. "I was like, 'We gotta get back in the room, work hard and just keep working towards it.' Every loss makes me better."

"Loss" barely came into play at all during his senior campaign. Gardner never finished lower than second place in a tournament this year, and only suffered two setbacks while winning 39 bouts. He entered his last match on the Colorado stage with the added confidence of past run-ins with Midcap.

"I was going in there prepared and I pinned him at regionals," Gardner said. "I pinned him a couple times throughout my high school career, throughout middle school, kind of. I was going in there knowing what I'm going up against. He's a tough kid."

While Gardner has not yet committed to wrestle in college, he's still assessing his options. If anything, Saturday night's ending just gives him another feather in his cap.

"I wanted to go out with a banger, get that mat slapped, get it over with," he said.

Just in the nick of time

When Xavier Valentin-Bradford first began wrestling as a sophomore at Centaurus, he never imagined he'd come anywhere close to a state title in his Class 5A heavyweight division. He didn't even leave a question to who the best heavyweight was in Colorado's biggest classification.

In his state championship match against Northglenn's Eli Stevens, as the clock ticked down in the first period, he decided to make his move. He pinned Stevens right before time expired to secure his gold.

Centaurus head coach Arturo Mata believed the Warriors' last state champion was in 2008. Valentin-Bradford didn't want to be too overzealous, instead choosing to wrestle smart. That earned him a 39-2 record.

"We haven't had a state champ for a while," he said. "Having that hard work pay off, it's just amazing. Hearing the crowd, really coming from nothing, and just having the people on my back and just supporting me, it's just amazing. I'm not willing to take no for an answer."

Thwarted at the end

Brayden Bach has been waiting to top a state wrestling podium since the day he first put on a singlet 13 years ago. On Saturday night at Ball Arena, during the Class 3A 144-pound finals, the Holy Family senior finally earned his chance to shine.

In the end, however, he fell victim to Gunnison's Miles Harris, who out-gunned him in a 12-5 decision. Bach simply ran out of time to make anything happen.

A day earlier, he won 9-2 in the semifinals.

He compared the feeling to that of his football state championship back in December, and let that excitement fuel him all the way to the spotlight. Unlike many of the grapplers that make it to the final high school competition of the year, Bach gave up wrestling year-round to pursue football when he first joined the Tigers.

"Every single play, the linemen just come out after me because they're like, 'Oh, this is a small guy. We can bully him right?' I just use my strength and stuff to come with a mean punch because they know I'm short, but I got power. It just makes me feel like 10 times better. It just makes me feel more talented, in a way."

That power and speed was detrimental to Moffat County's Kaeden Martinez in the semis. Bach just couldn't match Harris' strength, especially through the first two periods.

Bach shed the stress that marred him in the three seasons leading up to his final one, and has been wrestling with the levity of having nothing to lose. In the final match of his high school career, he channeled the nerves caused by the massive crowd to give him one last high.

His head coach, Ernie Derrera, always knew he had it in him, no matter which step he stood atop on the podium.

"He's probably better than 95% of the people I've ever seen on his feet," Derrara said. "He's phenomenal and just fun to watch. Coaches will stop what they're doing just to watch him when he's on his feet, and I'm not talking Holy Family coaches. I'm talking about coaches from other places as well."

A champion in the making

Carson Hageman knew his title match in the Class 4A 165s wouldn't be easy. Falcon's Javani Majoor was already the defending state champion. In their bout, Majoor added another gold to his resume when he outmatched the Erie junior in a 9-3 decision.

Just a few months earlier, Hageman won a football state championship, and was hungry for another. It looks like he'll have to wait another year.

"I knew he was a great wrestler and being a two-time state champ is very hard to do and he did it," Hageman said. "It was present during the match, when he would score off my shots, and just being as quick as he is really just showed how good he was."

Over the past year, Hageman worked to improve upon finishing his shots, his offense when he was on top, and being more aggressive on his feet. He said he was honored to make it to Saturday night, win or lose.

"Every match, I learn something that helps me in my next match," he said. "This match, I learned when I take a shot, I have to finish and stop relying on my strength to get me out of sticky positions. This is going to make me hungrier next year."