This story also appears in the February issue of Colorado Preps Eastern Colorado Magazine.
By Nick Jurney
Superstition is common in athletics. Wrestling is no different.
Some wrestlers say a little prayer, or point to the sky. Some wrestlers practice the same warmup routine, down to the steps they take, before each match. And some wrestlers simply put the ankle band on the same leg every time.
But what Jade Cozart of Cheyenne Wells High School does is different. It’s special.
Cozart has a unique handshake with his coach that they do before every match. They did the handshake before every match of Cozart’s freshman year. And before every match of his sophomore year, the first year that he qualified for the Class 2A state tournament.
But now, in Cozart’s senior season, the handshake is very different. It’s different because in June 2017, his coach and mentor — 24-year-old Tyson Mitchek — died unexpectedly.
Now before every match, Cozart, currently ranked No. 4 at 138 pounds for the Tigers, goes into the locker room and says a prayer. And he does his handshake alone.
“It was really hard (last year),” Cozart said. “I had my struggles. Honestly, I was thinking about quitting. There was no way I wanted to go out there without Tyson coaching me. But I reminded myself, ‘Tyson wouldn’t like it if you just quit, if you gave up.’ So now before every match I go into the locker room and do (the handshake), imagining he’s there.”
Cozart and fellow senior Dawson Worley, who is ranked No. 1 at 195 pounds, are the only two remaining wrestlers from Mitchek’s much-too-short tenure. In fact, the seniors make up two-thirds of the entire wrestling room, joined only by freshman Evan Worley.
Both placed as juniors at the 2A state tournament a year ago —Worley was fourth and Cozart sixth — a mere eight months after Mitchek died unexpectedly in his sleep.
This year, they are both on track to finish even higher on the podium. Worley just turned in an impressive third-place performance at the ultra-tough Rocky Welton Invite in Kansas, moving to 20-3 on the year.
Cozart has missed time throughout the second half after suffering a knee injury, but says that it won’t derail him from his ultimate goal of winning state in honor of his late coach.
“I think me and Dawson have a really good shot at winning state,” Cozart said. “Whenever I’m out there on the mat, I think if Tyson was there, what would he want me to do. I just see Tyson sitting there.”
The small town on Colorado’s eastern plains was rocked by the death of the young coach.
“Tyson had a personality that was larger than life … He was well respected by our student athletes as well as our community,” Cheyenne Wells athletic director Mike Miller said. “He had worked hard to represent himself and his school and he had those same high expectations for his athletes.
“Tyson will never be forgotten by anyone who knew him, and his legacy is still evident in the lives that he touched.”
Miller hired Mitchek to be the Tigers’ wrestling coach after having seen him come up through the ranks in youth wrestling, middle school, and through his own state podium performances in high school.
Mitchek was an all-state football player and placed fourth as a junior (171) and third as a senior (215).
Those podium performances were made possible, at least in part, by Mitchek’s upbringing. His father, Sam Mitchek, is a longtime farmer in the community and former coach at Cheyenne Wells. His siblings and cousins all wrestled as well — sometimes to the chagrin of a young Tyson.
“We were definitely a wrestling family,” said Mitchek’s brother Dustin Steelman, who is nearly a decade older than Tyson and was a state placer himself. “He had to grow up tough with all of us roughing him up and practicing moves on him. (Later) he started whooping my butt … I was on the mat coaching with Sam during Tyson’s last match his senior year. He got third and it was the proudest moment of my life up to that point.”
After college, Mitchek returned to his hometown and took to coaching the sport he loved — and coaching took to him.
“The wrestlers were particularly special to him,” Steelman said. “Wrestling is just that kind of sport. You work so hard and build strong bonds with each other, especially when there’s only five or so wrestlers on the team.”
With Cozart and Worley as the cogs, the Tiger wrestling machine, which has never finished higher than third in the state tournament and hasn’t produced a state champion since 1997, was primed to rev up again.
But the loss of Mitchek hit the team, and the community, hard. Some wrestlers couldn’t make it through the next season.
The unexpected death of a beloved coach, coupled with a shrinking student population — Miller says only 36 students are enrolled at Cheyenne Wells — leaves the program in limbo after Worley and Cozart wrestle their final matches in February.
“Like most athletes, (Worley and Cozart) were close to their coach, a bond forged by the countless hours of work, sweat, and pain that coaches and athletes have,” Miller said. “With Tyson’s help they had both improved a lot, and after his passing they have continued to work and grow into formidable athletes.
“The future of the program is up in the air (after this year). But there are bigger classes coming up and if we do drop the program it will hopefully not be for long. This school has a strong wrestling heritage and there will be more athletes who will want to be a part of that.”
Despite the uncertainty surrounding Cheyenne Wells wrestling, the goal for Cozart is still clear-cut. After placing at the state tournament for the first time last year, just months after a key figure in his life passed away, Cozart gave Tyson’s dad and former coach a hug. He told him, “Next year, I’m going to win for Tyson.”
“We have these old-school singlets in the wrestling room that Tyson used to put on,” Cozart said. “When I placed at state last year, I hung my medal on the wall next to one of the singlets. This year I want to hang that giant bracket and a gold medal next to it.
“He was our coach, our mentor, our friend … I want to win state for Tyson. It would mean the world to me.”