In 1996, a young, unassuming wrestler from Riverton arrived on the Northwest College campus, determined to make his mark as a student, and as an athlete.
Christopher Brooks Apodaca did exactly that in his three seasons as a Trapper, going from an unheralded walk-on to a scholarship athlete and to a national tournament qualifier in his final season.
“He was quiet, a real hard-working kid,” longtime NWC head wrestling coach Jim Zeigler said of Apodaca. “Very quiet, very driven. Very humble. He had some talent, but he wasn’t a superstar, or anything.”
However, Apodaca got progressively better during his time at the college; Zeigler called the music student “just a really beautiful kid.”
Tragically, a promising future was cut short in the spring of 1998. Apodaca, having just completed his final season on the mats for NWC, was killed in a one-car rollover that April. His parents, his team and his coach were devastated. For Zeigler, only a few years into his coaching career, it was an event he wasn’t prepared for.
“If you’re in this business long enough, things happen to the kids that you’ve coached,” Zeigler explained. “It’s just one of those things that just hits you — you never think about it until it happens. Believe me, I think about it now. At NWC, we look out for our kids and students and we become attached to them. We’re protective of them, so when something happens, it hits us to the core.”
The outpouring of support from the campus and the community following Apodaca’s passing is something Zeigler said he’ll never forget, and always appreciates.
“The campus as a whole rallied around us, from counselors, to faculty to administrators — everyone was very protective of the fragile emotions of our young men who didn’t know how to absorb this,” Zeigler said. “Most of them had never lost a family member or a friend. It was a new experience for all of them in dealing with that process. ... It was quite a test for us.”
Finding a way to remember
As the healing process began, Zeigler and his wrestlers started thinking of a way they could honor their young teammate’s memory.
“Through that [healing] process, when something’s gone, you understand how much it means to you,” Zeigler said.
Together, the team and coach decided to start a memorial tournament — the Apodaca Duals Showdown.
This weekend marks the 21st Apodaca Duals, a meet Zeigler calls “the signature event” of the NWC wrestling program each season.
“It’s the thing that means the most to us as a team,” the coach said.
Over the years, the event has attracted some of the top schools in the nation in the NJCAA, and it’s widely known in wrestling circles as a premiere event.
“There were years where we had the one, two, three and fourth-ranked teams here,” Zeigler said, adding, “Among competitors it’s gotten national recognition in terms of the wrestling community. People know what it is.”
Though it is, for all intents and purposes, a wrestling tournament, for Zeigler and the athletes who have participated over the years, the event holds a greater significance. It’s become something of a teaching opportunity for Zeigler — a way to introduce new wrestlers to the culture he’s cultivated at NWC.
“Each year as we approach it, I start to talk to our guys about what happened, and familiarize them with [Apodaca], and with the spirit of that whole team and the spirit of the event,” he said. “Generally, by the time the event gets here, they have a very good understanding of what they’re walking into. That it means something to our program and our tradition, and it’s representative of the way that we want to live our lives.”
“It’s an opportunity for me to teach them the things that are important in competition, the things that they can learn through wrestling and what it means to have teammates and coaches and friends that you depend on and that you love ... and what a group of young men can do together when they’re all on the same page and they generally care about each other.”
Becoming a team, honoring a memory
The 2018-19 season has been a difficult one for the Trappers, as injuries and low participation numbers have led to frustration on and off the mat.
“We had such a difficult December, and I found myself being really frustrated with the team,” Zeigler said. “I didn’t feel like they were learning at the rate that I wanted them to learn. They weren’t committed at the level I wanted them to be.”
But after a visit in his office from one of his wrestlers, Zeigler said he realized that the fault of the team’s shortcomings didn’t just rest with the athletes.
“I was not affectionate with them; it was very business-like, all of our dealings,” he said. “One of the guys came into my office and he was upset — upset with his performance, with the way things were going.”
As the young man looked at the plaques and trophies that lined Zeigler’s office, the athlete teared up. He shared how much he wanted to be a part of that winning tradition and talked about how close he and his teammates had become.
“And that had gone by me; I had missed it,” Zeigler said. “I didn’t realize that they were that thick, that they were that tight with each other.”
“At that point, I realized that the missing ingredient was me,” the coach said. “They were loving each other, I just wasn’t loving them back.”
Zeigler said that moment was a turning point for the team. Now, as the Trappers prepare for the Apodaca Duals this weekend, it’s a different team from the one that began the season.
“There just seems to be a new attitude amongst each other and in our dealings with each other,” he said. “Less business-like and more family-like.”
Apodaca Duals Showdown
Western Wyoming CC and Northeastern Junior College are the two teams participating in the duals, and the Western Wyoming Mustangs are coached by a familiar face to NWC wrestling fans: Art Castillo was a national qualifier for the Trappers under Zeigler and a teammate of Brooks Apodaca.
Castillo will be standing at Zeigler’s side this weekend when they present the Apodaca Award, given annually to the wrestler or member of the NWC wrestling program who best represents the qualities Zeigler valued in Brooks Apodaca.
For Castillo — now in his 10th season at the helm for the Mustangs — bringing his team to the Apodacas each year is a way to impart on his wrestlers the importance of being a good teammate and a good person.
“This is one of those times in a season where the event is so much bigger than ourselves,” he said. “There is so much more to wrestle for. We honor him [Apodaca] this entire week with our effort and the way we go about our business. ...This event is a way to reminisce on those past experiences and remind us what’s important. I’m able to share that with my team, and it’s an event we’ll never miss, as long as I’m here.”
Ray and Carla Apodaca, Brooks’ parents, have also been present at each Apodaca Duals tournament except one, as a way to keep their son’s spirit alive.
“It’s very difficult for them to go through that process each year, to walk into the gym and see his [Brooks’] picture on an easel,” Zeigler said. “But I think also it makes them proud that he’s remembered in this way, and that it has carried on for 21 years, and the type of event that it’s become. It’s something that I think will be here long after me, I hope.”
Over the years, the Apodaca Award has been given to both star wrestlers and lesser-known grinders; it’s not always the best wrestler who receives the honor.
“Quiet leadership, good student, the kind of kid that’s always there for his teammates,” Zeigler said of the winners. “The kind of guy that makes the guys around him better — a guy who doesn’t even realize the significance of his contributions.”
The Trappers will wrestle Western Wyoming at 7 p.m. Friday, then square off against NJC Saturday morning at 11 a.m. It’s also Ag Appreciation weekend at the college, with a variety of events planned.
Zeigler said he will be looking to his sophomores — most notably Palmer Schafer at 141 pounds and Logan Sondrup at 165 pounds — to lead the charge. Talented freshmen like Yair Moran and Dawson Barfuss will also be ones to watch as the weekend unfolds.
“We have a young, inexperienced team, but their focus is much better,” Zeigler said. “I don’t know what to expect in terms of wins and losses, but I do know that this team has made tremendous progress. The measurement of growth for this team has yet to be determined, but I think it’s significant. Whether that translates to victory on the mat, I don’t know, but we’re certainly becoming a team.”