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Picture this: Grant and Hunter Willits share a strong bond en route to multiple state titles

09 Feb 2017

BY NICK JURNEY THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN

Family game night at the Willits house isn’t always pretty. Unlike on the wrestling mat, things don’t always work out in favor of Pueblo County High School senior Hunter Willits.Or for his twin brother Grant.The wonder twins, with a combined five Class 4A state championships, are mortal when it comes to board games.The twins’ parents, Rick and Bonnie Willits, agree that Hunter’s competitive nature is what makes him — and in turn, his brother — such a dominant force in the sport of wrestling.It’s also what makes playing a simple game of Yahtzee so difficult.“One thing we can hardly do is play a board game,” Rick Willits said. “Hunter is probably the angriest board game player you’ve ever seen. If you roll something better than him, he thinks there’s dice fixed in your favor and he wants to check them. We’ve seen a lot of that.”The 18-year-old twins hate to lose. That’s part of the reason why they’ve done so little of it during their wrestling careers.

Hunter became Pueblo’s first ever three-time state champion, winning Class 4A titles at 132 pounds as a freshman, 138 as a sophomore and 152 last season. This year he has a chance to become just the 20th wrestler in Colorado history to win four state titles. Grant Willits is a two-time Class 4A champion — winning titles at 106 pounds as a freshman and 126 last year. Had it not been for a weigh-in mishap at the state tournament as a sophomore, he likely would be gunning for a fourth state title.They helped Pueblo County win the school’s first boys state team title last year and lead the charge for a top-ranked Hornets squad that appears primed to repeat. Both are ranked nationally by well-known wrestling websites. Hunter Willits is ranked No. 8 at 152 pounds by FloWrestling and No. 10 by InterMat, while Grant Willits is ranked 10th and 13th, respectively. Both committed to Division I Oregon State University next year, and both plan to major in engineering.

With the Class 4A Region 1 tournament starting Friday and Saturday at Lewis-Palmer High School, there are but a few things left to accomplish.The city’s all-time individual wins record is within reach. Another team title would be a nice feather in the cap.But winning two more state titles together, proving to themselves that all their hard work had paid off in the form of an unmatched legacy? That would be a picture perfect.

Steel City beginnings

The twins started wrestling a young age with the Steel City Wrestling Club, which has churned out dozens of state champions and placers.They went from tournament to tournament, state to state with many of their current high school teammates. They all grew up practicing in what Rick Willits called “a room full of gladiators.”“I remember transferring from room to room sometimes,” Grant Willits said. “We worked out in a little storage shed at East, and then at Centennial, and then at County. We’d go all over the country in an RV that (coach) Aaron (Bonham) had. That was a lot of fun.”Their collection of wrestling hardware, trophies and medals, which is so voluminous that it now spills in to spare rooms and drapes over mounted animal antlers, started with success at Tulsa Nationals, Reno Worlds and other big-time youth tournaments.Though Rick Willits was a state champion at East in 1980 and NAIA national champion (Adams State, 1985), the twins say the pressure to wrestle never came from him. Instead, it came from a desire to win.“I’ve always loved it,” Hunter Willits said. “It’s always been my favorite sport. And we’ve done everything; Football, soccer, baseball, even basketball.”Rick Willits, an assistant coach for the Hornets, remembered the day that it was all but decided. It happened in a car ride home from wrestling practice one day as Keenan Willits, three years older than the twins, was preparing to enter high school.He said he asked Keenan whether he was going to play basketball or wrestle in high school, and to his (pleasant) surprise Keenan decided he was going to wrestle. Now the 165-pound starter at Colorado School of Mines, it turned out to be a good choice.

The twins, though, never had the other option.“I remember telling the twins, ‘You know you guys are going to wrestle. Do you want to know why?’ And I think it was Grant that said, ‘Yeah I guess.’ I said, ‘Because you’re good at it,’” Rick Willits said. “I don’t know if they wanted to go another way if I would have forced them back into it. But whether it was a good thing or not, they had no way of quitting it.“I equate it to a kid that’s good at math. As a parent, you probably want to keep driving them toward something they’re excellent at. You’re not going to let them say ‘I don’t want to do math.’ It was a way they could get something out of it, whether it be a college scholarship or just a life lesson.”

Rick Willits was inducted in to the Greater Pueblo Sports Association Hall of Fame in 2005, when the twins were 7. It was a moment Bonnie Willits said may have shaped their futures.“The twins were really little, but I watched them as Rick got inducted and they were just in awe,” said Bonnie Willits, who was a successful in sports including gymnastics in her own day. “I could see right there. Their desire was to be everything Rick was and then some.”

 

Getting to the top

Neither anticipated reaching the top of the podium during their freshman year.Despite the many accolades they racked up in youth wrestling, high school was a different beast. They were age 14 competing against 18-year-old opponents with state tournament experience.That’s all they wanted at first — the experience.“Honestly, I just wanted to be a state champion at some point,” Grant Willits said. “I didn’t plan on winning multiple or anything, I just wanted one.”Grant pinned Morgan Fogg of Thompson Valley in triple overtime to make the 106-pound finals that year, where he pinned Palisade’s Randen Ezpinoza in the third period to capture the crown.

Five matches later, it was his brother’s turn.“I remember walking out to the mat, and I thought ‘I’m not really superstitious, but maybe I should be,’” Rick Willits said. “So I start making the turn to the same chair (as Grant’s match), but Hunter keeps on walking. I thought, ‘Hey we have to sit in the winning chair!’ But I figured we better just let things take care of themselves. And thank God things worked out because man, I thought if we got in the wrong chair. …”Hunter cruised through his first state tournament at 132 pounds with two technical falls, a major decision and a 10-3 decision in the finals. That’s still the closest match he’s ever had at the state tournament in two more trips.“Freshman year, that was probably my favorite of my titles,” Hunter said. “I was kind of unknown, just kind of making a name for myself. I’ll always remember that one.”

The next year at the state tournament, Grant missed weight by one-tenth of a pound, ending the twins’ hopes of being the first set of twins to win four state championships. Hunter remained on track despite the unthinkable happening to his brother. Grant was on the floor to help his brother warm up at the Pepsi Center that same day.“I think the deep care has been pretty cool to see,” Rick Willits said. “When Grant missed that weight, I thought ‘Man, this could really rattle Hunter.’ And I know Grant was worried, too. But you see them hit these peaks and valleys and they move on together.”Last year the two returned to the top of the podium together again, with Grant beating Thompson Valley’s Vlad Kazakov 10-7 and Hunter scoring a 17-1 technical fall over Mesa Ridge’s Devin Roettger.He emphatically clapped his hands together after the match as he celebrated his redemption.“I think that one is probably the most valuable to me,” Grant said.

 

Staying on top

Since their freshman campaigns, the Willits twins have been nearly unbeatable. Hunter’s four-year varsity record stands at 163-7, with a school record running total of 75 technical falls — two of them in state championship matches. He hasn’t lost a match in Colorado since his sophomore season (79-0 in-state since), and he never lost a match in a dual meet in four years (51-0).He and Grant (163-12) are both tied with Central grad Sonny Espinoza for Pueblo’s all-time individual wins record. The next time their hand is raised, they will be enshrined as Pueblo’s all-time greats.“How crazy is that, after four years we have the exact same amount of wins,” Hunter Willits said. “Having Grant by my side for all of this has been amazing. We’re both competitive, but I’m extremely competitive. I want to be better than everybody, even Grant, so he’s always pushing me to be better and I’m doing the same for him.”Grant, the older twin by about 26 minutes, holds the Pueblo County record for career pins with 70. He also attributes his success to his slightly younger but slightly bigger brother.“It’s awesome to have a workout partner whenever I want,” Grant Willits said. “He pushes me and he makes me a lot tougher. Even when I want to quit, or I don’t want to practice, he makes me keep going. Even when he’s out cleaning the garage, he’ll make me go. He’s been really great like that.”

 

Role models

Two days after they won their Class 4A state titles last season, they were back in the wrestling room preparing for the spring, summer and ultimately their final state tournament, which looms next week — should they place in the top four at regionals, of course.“I really don’t like losing,” Grant said. “If you miss out on a practice and you lose a match, there was something right there you could have done.”“If you don’t want to lose, you’re going to do something about it,” Hunter added. “Everything we’ve succeeded in, as individuals and a team, is something I’ll look back on. It’s relieving, almost. It shows the hard work has paid off.“I want to have a legacy where people continue to talk about me and what I’ve done. To be a role model for some younger wrestlers.“And I think it’s really cool to look back and say I’ve worked hard enough to stay on top.”