Southern Oregon has been home to many prominent wrestling duals over the years, mostly thanks to the history of programs like Crater, Eagle Point...
Less than 48 hours after his stunning run at the Reser's Tournament of Champions in Hillsboro, Crater junior wrestler Tyler Thomas was still trying to make heads or tails of his weekend experience at Liberty High School.
As a No. 7 seed at 120 pounds, Thomas overcame a conference rival and two defending state champions to claim an individual title at the unofficial all-classification state tourney.
For his efforts, Thomas was voted the most outstanding wrestler.
"As far as Crater guys being outstanding wrestler, he's in an elite group," said Comets head coach Greg Haga, noting that Thomas joined the likes of former standouts Shane Webster and Chase Maloney.
Thomas set off a buzz at the prestigious event after being the only wrestler not seeded No. 1 to win a weight class and the only wrestler seeded lower than third to even reach the finals. The unranked Thomas seemed to surprise everyone, including himself.
"I was just as surprised as everyone else," said Thomas. "I had a lot of people doubting I could do it but as long as I can believe in myself, I know I can do it."
Thomas has fared well all season for the Comets but nothing to the extent of what he put on display this past weekend in his first Reser's experience. He competed for South Medford the past two seasons before rejoining his friends in Central Point, where he attended middle school and wrestled for Crater's club team.
Two weekends ago, he helped the Comets finish runner-up to David Douglas at the Oregon Wrestling Classic in Redmond, and it was a loss in that dual-meet format against Roseburg's Chad Jones that likely spurred him to greater things seven days later.
"I lost (5-3 to Jones) and that made me think to myself that I need to work and prepare a lot harder so I can come back and beat him because I knew he was going to be in my weight again," said the 16-year-old Thomas.
Sure enough, it was Jones standing across from him in the quarterfinal round Friday night in Hillsboro, only this time it was Thomas gaining the advantage by virtue of a 3-1 decision.
"That's really what started it off," Thomas said of his Reser's run. "It was a really close match and I just won it from the hard work I did in the mat room. It helped boost my confidence up a lot. To change from losing only a week before and coming back to beat him helped show that I had improved a whole lot more in this already and gave me confidence that I could do even more."
The smattering of pats on the back Thomas received after clearing that hurdle was nothing like the reaction Saturday morning after he upset Wyatt Scribner, who was a state champion in Washington last year before transferring to Hermiston. Thomas used a first-round takedown, second-round reversal and third-round takedown to claim a 6-0 triumph.
"In the semifinal match I was really nervous for that one just because the kid's really tough," said Thomas. "I always go out in my matches really nervous but I always believe that I can win, too, and pray that I can win."
"I went out there and I wrestled really smart," he added. "I didn't try to do anything stupid and when I got that first takedown, I automatically just felt like, 'I know I can beat this kid.'"
The magnitude of what he was trying to accomplish hit a high point later Saturday when Thomas had to listen to all the accolades for Culver's Jared Kasch during the pre-finals introductions. Kasch is a three-time defending Class 2A state champion and boasted a 35-2 record, with one loss to Thomas' cousin Casey Coulter of Grants Pass (who was a repeat Reser's champion at 113) and the other to his own teammate.
"He had only two losses and I just wanted to add another one onto that," said Thomas, who edged Kasch 4-2 in the finals. "I just went out there and wrestled hard and really smart again and gave him that third loss, which is probably the last loss he'll see this season."
In two days, Thomas went from an unknown commodity for Crater to a state championship contender, and, as Haga said, he earned every bit of that recognition.
"He did a great job and just fought hard and didn't give up many points," said the coach. "He was just in good position the whole time and just kept wrestling hard."
"Being able to be consistent at the highest level each time out like that is pretty amazing," added Haga. "Some people don't understand that (the Reser's TOC) is even tougher than the state tournament. His last three opponents were state champion-quality people, every one of them, and that's hard to do, especially after the run we've had the last two or three weeks."
Thomas said a lot of credit for his recent success has to go to training partner Nate Walters, who is ranked No. 1 at 132 pounds, as well as the Comets' dedicated coaching staff.
"He and I really push each other really hard," said Thomas of Walters. "I'm quicker than him but he's bigger and he's stronger than me so it's really tough being partners with each other. We push each other to the limits."
Thomas has had to take some lumps in that competition, but it has made him a stronger wrestler once the spotlight drops for varsity matches.
"It's such a difference," he said of his daily workouts. "If you go with new people to the sport every day you're not going to learn much at all. You may get your confidence boosted but in a real match you'll get it handed to you. Against better wrestlers you might get your butt handed to you in practice but in the matches you'll be a whole lot better suited for it."
Haga said it's that added boost of confidence and faith in what he's doing that hopefully will help carry Thomas through the rest of the season and beyond.
"I just think (this past weekend) should help him be confident in that what he's doing is working," Haga said. "This is a new kid coming to our program and sometimes he looks at us as if we're crazy for having a hard practice right before a dual meet. I think part of this is confidence for him to know what he's doing is working. What we do day in and day out has a little bit of history to prove it works if you work hard, and that's what he does. He works hard in the room and has tough people around him to make him better."
Thomas agreed that his Reser's experience has put him in a different mindset overall.
"I've learned a lot from last weekend and I'm going to continue to learn a lot until the state tournament and keep on improving every day in that room," he said. "It's definitely helped me realize what it takes to succeed and shown me what I can do. It's all just been an amazing experience."
As for the rest of the Comets, who placed seventh as a team, it will be business as usual as the end of season grind continues Thursday with a dual at Roseburg in preparation for the Feb. 8-9 District 4 tournament at Crater.
"I felt pretty good about our overall performance (at Reser's)," said Haga. "We were right in there battling for top spots in a lot of weights."
"Right now," the coach added, "I'm looking at more the mental aspect of wrestling than the physical. We're tired and have two weeks to get jazzed back up physically (for regionals), but mentally, you have to get out there and wrestle your best match every time, no matter what, and that's what we're focusing on."
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