North Medford High wrestling coach Phillip Lopez isn't the type to get carried away.
ASHLAND — He was only a freshman, still adjusting to the glare of Portland's Memorial Coliseum. But to Ashland wrestler Mason Montgomery, going three-and-out at state — ninth-grader or not — simply was not acceptable.
So he took a good hard look at the wrestlers who spent their weekend pinning opponents and snatching up trophies and decided that next year he would do whatever it takes to join their party.
Well, it's next year, and Montgomery looks poised to start sending out invitations. He's been that good.
Counting Wednesday's put-up-or-shut-up win over No. 2-ranked Trevor Olsen of Eagle Point, Ashland's 195-pound wrecking ball has won 13 of 14 matches — the dominant start includes tournament victories in both Bend and Springfield — and is ranked No. 1 in the state.
It's been a spectacularly fast ascension, especially for a wrestler who was knocked out in the first round of the 189-pound Class 5A state championship bracket last season. Montgomery showed some of his huge upside the following day when he stunned the No. 2 seed in the consolation bracket, but he lost his next match — to the No. 3 seed and eventual consolation winner — and wound up watching the rest of the action as a dejected spectator.
Determined to redeem himself, Montgomery made sure it would not be a wasted trip.
"I saw the guys up there and knew where I had to be at, what my goals had to be at, where to set my standards," said Montgomery, who was a first-team all-Midwestern League linebacker for the Ashland High football team. "They were so superior to me last year. I know I was just a freshman, and I'm still a sophomore, but physically I tried to get myself to where they were at.
"I feel like I'm about there right now, and it's a nice feeling."
Not for his opponents.
A lean, muscle-bound 5-foot-11, Montgomery is Rottweiler strong, yet quick enough to chase ball carriers sideline to sideline on Friday nights. As an added bonus, he also happens to have wrestling in his blood. His father, Mitch Montgomery, was a state-title contender as a heavyweight at Brookings-Harbor, placing third in the 1990 AA state championships after pinning four straight opponents in the consolation bracket.
The younger Montgomery isn't ashamed to say that he has yet to beat the old man but is quick to point out the size difference.
"He's got that man strength," Mason Montgomery said. "He's the strongest guy I've ever tried to wrestle."
Montgomery's fast climb from just another face in the crowd to state-title contender — and possibly favorite — didn't happen by accident. Following last year's disappointment, he recommitted himself to the mat and vowed to return to Portland more polished, built for a long run.
"I think he's definitely more focused on not only the task at hand, but he can see where he wants to be and there's no doubt in my mind that he wants to be a state champion," Ashland wrestling coach Bill Bowers said. "When he comes in here (for practice), he's focused, he doesn't question anything, he just does what we ask of him. And the great thing about it is, he does more. He's that kid in the room that you gauge everything as far as the workout and how hard it is — if he's suffering, everybody else is about done."
All that hard work has paid off big time for Montgomery, who will head to the District 4 meet Feb. 10-11 in Eagle Point with loads of confidence. The top four placers in each weight class qualify for the state meet, which will be Feb. 24-25 at Memorial Coliseum.
The district meet won't be a cakewalk. With 11 teams from Eugene, Bend and southern Oregon, it's the largest district meet in the state.
Montgomery doesn't sound worried, however. So far, the giant "X" on his back fits comfortably.
"I feel like I'm twice the wrestler I was last year," he said, "better shape, stronger, quicker. Everything I lacked I kind of gained this year."
Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-776-4469, or email firstname.lastname@example.org