ASHLAND — Southern Oregon will try to make program history this weekend as the second-ranked Raiders go after a fifth consecutive NAIA West Qualifying Tournament team title Saturday in Great Falls, Mont.
Southern Oregon finished the regular season with a 12-3 dual record, clinching a 43rd consecutive winning season. Now the Raiders will set their sights on reclaiming their spot atop a region they have dominated for almost half a decade.
"We're looking to do big things," SOU assistant coach Joel Gibson said. "We're looking to the regional tournament with big hopes of trying to win it."
That challenge might be even greater this year than in years past, as the West Region has proven to be the strongest in the NAIA this season. Three of the top six teams in the latest NAIA poll hail from the West, with SOU ranking second, tournament host Great Falls third and Montana-State Northern sixth. With No. 18 Menlo, Embry-Riddle (Ariz.) and Simpson all boasting ranked wrestlers, there are no easy wins in the six-team region.
"Our region is pretty stacked," Gibson said.
The individual rankings might tell that story even better, as six of the 10 top-ranked wrestlers in their respective weight classes compete for West Region programs.
Southern Oregon's Mitchell Lofstedt, Prescott Garner and former Crater standout Brock Gutches top the rankings at 125, 133 and 174 pounds, respectively.
Changes to the national qualification structure this year make a strong performance at Saturday's tournament even more important. Beginning this year, the only way to qualify for the national tournament — slated for the first weekend of March — is to be a top-four finisher at the regional tournament.
"In the past that wasn't quite the same," Gibson said. "There's a lot more emphasis on the regional tournament this year."
Twelve wrestlers will represent SOU in Great Falls.
Fourth-ranked Miguel Baltazar will join Garner in the 133-pound bracket, second-ranked Jimmy Eggemeyer will compete at 149 and No. 11 Dalton Urrutia, at 157, will try to win his second consecutive regional title.
Derek Mestrovich and Bryson Gutches of Crater will compete at 165, ninth-ranked Jacob Abrams and Tyler Thomas will wrestle at 184 and second-ranked 197-pounder Taylor Johnson and 16th-ranked heavyweight Bubba Owens will also participate.
Both Lofstedt and Brock Gutches will be looking to defend their regional titles from last season.
"We need to qualify all 12 guys so we can brace ourselves for the national tournament and see if we can beat Grand View there," Gibson said. "It's going to be a tough weekend, but I think we can pull it off."