Ponderosa (Parker, Colo.) head coach Corey McNellis is effusive in his praise of a wrestler who gave him a black eye earlier this season.
The shiner came during an early-season practice when McNellis stepped onto the mat to take on his star senior, Jake Snider. It's not an uncommon occurrence; Snider says he wrestles his coach just about every day in practice.
In this particular meeting, McNellis went low, Snider reacted and the coach's eye socket was suddenly in a bout of its own against Snider's knee. Not surprisingly, the knee won.
"[It looked] like one of my athletes beat me up," McNellis says.
Snider never turns down an opportunity to take to the mat against even the most seasoned of challengers. On most days that means taking on McNellis, a former two-time state champ at Ponderosa. The school is steeped in wrestling tradition, and Snider often has the opportunity to wrestle against alums who stop by to check in on their old team.
But Snider, a three-time state champion, doesn't stop there. Sometimes he'll seek out teammates from higher weight classes for an extra challenge. The 145-pound Snider has gone so far as to take on 189-pound senior Derek Good, who finished fourth at state last year. Other days it's a fellow state champ like senior Steven Kelly (152) or junior Austin Gabel (160). "I can't do much against him," Snider says about Gabel.
Of course, the list of wrestlers Snider can't beat is pretty short. The Colorado State-Pueblo recruit was rated the nation's No. 5 wrestler at 145 pounds by InterMat at press time.
He went 36-2 last season en route to state crown No. 3 and entered his senior year with a 114-14 career record. This year, he'll attempt to become just the 16th wrestler in state history to win four straight individual titles.
Snider is reminded about that a lot.
"The pressure has built a little every year since my freshman year," he says. "That first year, I wasn't expected to win it. My parents were just happy that I got to state. But every year it's been a little more than I had before. It's pretty tough."
His first year, Snider was the only freshman in the 125-pound state bracket, which contributed to the diminished expectations. But he knocked off his first two opponents with pins, cruised to a 9-4 victory in the semifinals and then survived a frantic finals bout, winning 3-1 in overtime.
Suddenly, the bar had been raised substantially for Snider. But the bar is always a little higher at Ponderosa, home of the seven-time reigning Class 5A state wrestling champions.
In a sport where the spectators typically consist of family members only, Ponderosa routinely reaches standing-room-only capacity at home meets.
"We have a ton of people at our duals," Snider says. "It's probably distracting for the other team."
Once Snider completed his junior season with a third consecutive state championship, the pressure reached a whole new level. But there's a strong support system in place at Ponderosa to help him through it.
And McNellis has sent him a clear message: One year isn't all that important compared to a four-year body of work.
"I'm trying to encourage him not to think so much about the four-time thing," McNellis says. "He's had a tremendous career. Few can look back and say they had that career, and that never changes whether he wins this one or not."
Snider's talent is indisputable and comes in part from growing up the youngest of three brothers who were all serious wrestlers. His oldest brother, Buster, finished fifth at state in 2003. Jesse, the middle brother, captured a state title in 2007 as a senior after finishes of third, second and third, respectively, from 2004-06.
Coming from a wrestling family helped Jake gain toughness. His brothers used him as a glorified punching bag when he was younger, though that punishment served him well in the long term.
But after his freshman year, Snider decided he needed to be even tougher and more aggressive. He developed a relentless mentality on the mat, and he's been attacking ever since.
"He's legally mean," McNellis says. "He will get in your face, and from the time the whistle blows until the match is over, he's all over you. It doesn't matter if he's losing or he's ahead."
He wrestles like that in practice, too. Whether he's taking on his coach or a bigger, stronger state champ, Snider never takes it easy. "Sometimes I think about stopping it," McNellis says. "I worry about our athletes getting hurt." Though it's not necessarily the smaller guy who he's worried will get injured.
There is a strong respect for Snider among his teammates. He is generally quiet but says he likes being a vocal leader for the team. So when Ponderosa suffered a rare dual meet loss to open his senior season, Snider stepped up and told his teammates they couldn't get overconfident. "We're going to get everyone's best effort," he stressed.
Snider helps out in other ways, too. McNellis says Snider is one of the first to volunteer his time when Ponderosa hosts youth wrestling tournaments. And one of his primary reasons for choosing CSU-Pueblo -- in addition to its proximity to home -- was the desire to help a new program get off the ground (the school's wrestling team was relaunched in 2007 after a seven-year hiatus).
"He's such a good leader," McNellis says. "He is team-oriented. He cares about the success of the program."
Snider will surely open some eyes at his new school next year. And there's a good chance he'll be giving out a few more black eyes as well.