ASHLAND — After injuries and inexperience hindered the first chunk of the season, the Southern Oregon University wrestling team appreciated a break in the action that spanned almost an entire month.
Now it's time to find out if that No. 7 ranking in the NAIA is justified.
The Raiders, who last wrestled on Nov. 24, are back home this week for duals Thursday against ninth-ranked Simpson University and Friday against Simon Fraser, an NCAA Division II foe. Both are scheduled for 7 p.m. starts at Bob Riehm Arena, and at 5 p.m. on Friday the Raiders will host an exhibition against Clackamas Community College.
Seeking to build a winning dual record for the 44th straight season, the Raiders most recently lost at No. 2 Montana State-Northern and No. 5 Great Falls (Mont.). But they did so without Taylor Johnson (197 pounds) and Jacob Abrams (184), who are ranked No. 1 and No. 5 nationally in their respective weight classes.
Johnson, who this season has not yet wrestled, and Abrams are slated to return Thursday when SOU takes on another top-10 team in the Redhawks. Abrams has yet to lose this season — recording a pin in SOU's dual win against Menlo, and winning a title at the SOU Open — and Brock Gutches, the top-ranked 174-pounder in the NAIA, is 7-0 with five falls and two technical falls.
"We think everything's kind of rolling in the right direction now," SOU coach Mike Ritchey said. "We might be a little stale, but hopefully the practice room is salty enough to get our guys ready to go."
SOU's Jacob Stigall (125) jumped from 16th to seventh in the latest national rankings, and Trevor Hancock (133) went from unraked to 11th. Stigall is 2-1 in dual action and placed fourth with three pins at the SOU Open. Hancock placed third at the Open and came through with a pin at Great Falls in his only dual match.
Several other Raiders are in the West Region rankings: Thomas Gowing (6th, 125), Tanner Canaday (6th, 141), Tyler Cowger (6th, 149), Rhett Breed (6th, 157), Dalton Urrutia (5th, 165) and Brock Crocker (6th, 165).
To crack the lineup this week, Ritchey said, almost all of the Raiders had to win challenge matches.
The ones in there will see a solid Simpson squad that finished 11th at last season's NAIA Championships and is thought to be improved. AJ Valles is the top-ranked 133-pounder in the NAIA and Austin Lobsinger is the fifth-ranked heavyweight. Brady Beamon (6th, 174) and Anthony Vega (8th, 141) have also earned national recognition.
Simon Fraser and Simpson will have a dual at noon Friday in Ashland.
On Sunday, the Raiders will travel to Reno for the annual Tournament of Champions.