North Medford High wrestling coach Phillip Lopez isn't the type to get carried away.
CENTRAL POINT — They know how to push each other and when to pull away. They have countless years of combined family involvement in the sport of wrestling and yet each day brings a new thrilling challenge.
The four cousins — seniors Morgan Walters and Kody Gray and sophomores Nate Walters and Dillon Ulrey — are emblematic of what it means to be part of the tradition-rich Crater wrestling program.
Besides their own efforts, which include four top-five showings at state, the group enlists fathers and uncles who have played a role in the Comet program under the guidance of head coach Greg Haga. The quest for more honors begins at noon today when Crater High plays host to the District 4 Regional Championships, which conclude on Saturday.
"Those guys step on the mat and they compete hard," says Haga. "I think it's always an advantage the more wrestling you have in your family and the deeper the tradition goes."
"What it does, I think, is it just gives you a little bit of longevity," adds the coach, who has enjoyed extended family success over the years with the likes of the Lee brothers and Gutches families, among others. "When you have a bunch of guys you've dealt with for years and they kinda know where you're at and what you're about, maybe they're not as sensitive when you have to chew on them a little."
When it comes to the Walters brothers, Gray or Ulrey, there's really nothing sensitive about them. Placed in the wrestling room since they were toddlers, each has been hardened over time simply by butting heads year after year.
"For me, Nate, Dillon and Kody, we grew up around the sport and we've always been wrestling with each other," says Morgan Walters, whose father Danny is brother to Gray's mother Becky — along with Crater assistant coach Denny Walters — and first cousin to Ulrey's father Jerry. "I think for me and Kody it's easier to yell at my brother and Dillon and tell them to get moving in practice than anyone else because we have been together all our lives."
That relationship certainly has worked out well for the bunch.
Morgan Walters earned a state championship last year at 120 pounds despite suffering a broken hand two weeks prior to the Class 6A state tournament and also has a third-place finish on his resume. He's ranked third this year at 126.
Gray was the state runner-up at 145 pounds last year and seemed destined for another fast finish before being sidelined for the season by a knee injury. He was ranked third at 160 prior to his injury.
Nate Walters placed fifth at 132 last year and is ranked No. 1 at that weight this time around, while Ulrey is ranked No. 4 at 145 pounds this year but wrestles at 138.
"It's a lot of fun to be part of this," Ulrey says of the family business. "We all push each other a lot when we're out there and we have a lot of high goals for each other. Mo and Kody are the older ones out of us four and they know how Nate and I can wrestle and how tough we actually are so they have a lot of high goals for us and won't let us let up."
Nowhere is that more evident than with Gray, who sets the tone for the group, whether healthy or not. Gray suffered a lateral tear of his meniscus during a match in the Crater Classic on Jan. 12, had surgery the following week and still made sure he was on hand, albeit in a wheelchair, as the Comets took second at the Oregon Classic in Redmond.
"Kody's influence on the team is still there," says Haga. "He's still up to practice and still mat side. It's something when a coach chews you out but all of a sudden when it's a teammate, it cuts a little deeper. He's still pulling for his cousins and I think they might have a little to prove just for him also."
Gray had an impact on Morgan Walters' preparation for his senior year, as well as the development of Ulrey as his workout partner.
"We talked a lot this summer about finishing together as state champions and what pushed me to work out harder was the fact that Kody wanted to be a state champion more than anyone I've ever met," says Morgan Walters. "It's just sad that he can't physically do that but he's still a very important aspect of the team as one of our leaders."
Adds Ulrey: "He's the main reason I've been able to succeed since coming to high school because I had the skill-set but I didn't have the mindset. From middle school to high school it's a big jump in intensity and that's what Kody really taught us beginning last year, that you can't go slow on things or you won't be getting anything."
It's that ability to follow in someone else's footsteps, someone you trust has your best interests at heart that also draws in Nate Walters.
"I like it because I have people to look up to," Nate Walters says of the close-knit group. "I have an older brother that's won state and he's one of my idols and I want to be just like him in wrestling, and I have Kody who is a really, really strong guy and took second at state last year. I want to be as good as both of them, be as strong as Kody and Mo, and win state, too."
The great thing about the bunch, however, is that same sense of brotherhood spills over to the entire team.
"We don't just depend on one another as cousins," adds Nate Walters, "we treat each other on the team as a family and like we're all one. It's not just one group going with one group, we're a team and we've developed strong relationships as one big family. We'll always have each other's back and never let each other down."
That's one of the main reasons why Gray didn't think twice to hurry back to be there for his brothers in the face of such personal disappointment.
"I had really big goals this year and there's nothing I can do about it now," says Gray, who hopes to be back at full strength by April. "We're a big family up there at Crater, all of us, and it's important we finish this together."
It's that attitude that Denny Walters — Haga's first state champion — finds so endearing about his nephews.
"I'm so proud of the guys," says the assistant coach. "It's a little bit different now compared to going into state last year losing Kody and with Mo a little banged up but it's really been a fun year. All these guys have grown so much, it's just been fun watching it happen."
And somewhat surreal for Haga, who had to take a moment earlier in January during the Comets' senior night festivities.
"To me it was awesome when we had senior night and the Walters' grandparents and great grandparents came out and those are adults I've seen 20 some years ago come to senior night," says the veteran coach. "To me that was sentimental. I really enjoyed looking at people I had stood with when I was 20 years younger."
As for the boys, there's a tremendous respect among the group for each other's grind-it-out, never-give-in attitude. That said, at least one of the wrestlers has no doubt who rules the roost.
"I've got the biggest belly so I can squash them," Gray says with a laugh. "They're all little guys besides me, it's no contest."