Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
He didn't walk away with a championship, and he may have suffered a broken nose, but Crater's Tommy Winningham could see only positives stemming from his weekend in Hillsboro.
Only a sophomore, the 5-foot-8 wrestler managed to reach the finals in the Reser's Tournament of Champions at Liberty High before ultimately falling short at 152 pounds against four-time champion Tyler Berger of Crook County.
"It was a good tournament," said Winningham. "I was pretty happy with the outcome because I knew all the toughest teams in the state go there. You get the best matches there and toughest people so I was happy to go as far as I did."
The Reser's Tournament of Champions historically gathers the state's top talent, regardless of classification, and is generally considered a good preview for the state tournament. Despite entering as the No. 6 seed at 152, Winningham used a pin and two 4-3 decisions to earn his spot in the finals, where he was pinned in 3 minutes, 18 seconds as Berger became only the second four-time Reser's TOC champion.
"I thought if he had placed that would be a pretty good effort," said Crater head coach Greg Haga. "Up there if you can pull off a place, that's a pretty good effort as a sophomore."
In reality, that's all Winningham said he was hoping for when the tournament began.
"I don't think I was surprised but I was definitely happy that I was in the finals," he said. "Last year coming from not even placing at this tournament and winning one match to getting into the finals my sophomore year, that's pretty good. One of my goals this year was to place at Reser's so I kinda exceeded my expectations."
Ranked fifth at the Class 6A level for 152 pounds, Winningham had wrestled in only a handful of matches for that weight entering the tournament. The bulk of his matches this season have come at 160, mostly due to the added weight he carries coming from the football season into wrestling. The transition from one sport to another has always proven to be a challenge for Winningham, who said he's like two different wrestlers in the first part of the season compared to the second.
"Tommy's always been a little bit of a late starter," added Haga. "He comes right out of football and he's pretty big and now he's getting down to wrestling guys at 152 instead of 160, which is a big difference. It just takes a while to get into the groove of things."
Winningham's record of 17-11 entering the tournament is a bit deceiving considering he was 4-1 at 152, with all wins coming via a fall. Of his losses, three were to Grants Pass' Kjell Thorsen (ranked No. 1 in 6A at 152), two apiece were to Eagle Point's James McCoy (ranked No. 1 in 5A at 152) and Hunter Hoeptner (ranked No. 2 in 5A at 160) and one was to Lowell's Austin McNichols, a 2A two-time state runner-up currently ranked No. 2 at 152.
"I definitely think the tough competition that I've faced and was there (at Reser's) will be the main thing that will help me for the rest of this season," said Winningham. "When you have to face these good guys it makes you realize the way you have to wrestle in order to beat them. I've always had a certain style to wrestle smart because you only have to win by one point. You don't have to go out there and kick the guy's butt, you just have to wrestle smart enough to win those close matches."
It's that knowledge and comfort in tight matches that helped Winningham endure in the quarterfinals and finals against Sandy's C.J. McKinnis and Roseburg's David Harker, respectively. After pinning Hillsboro's David Interian in 1:57, Winningham edged the third-seeded McKinnis 4-3 and scored a similar victory against the seventh-seeded Harker.
"He just did a good job of fighting for position and not giving up points," Haga said of Winningham's run to the finals. "It's tough to come back on really good guys so if you spot them too many points you're not going to be able to dig yourself out of that hole."
In a pivotal performance against McKinnis, ranked No. 2 in 5A at 152, Winningham had to score late and then ride his foe out for the victory.
"It was a battle," said Haga. "(McKinnis) had almost reversed us at one time and Tom just kept wrestling through it and ended up riding him out, but it was real close. In the semis, it was the same kinda thing where he had to fight to get ahead and then fight every aspect of the match to end up with a one-point victory."
Such tight matches take a toll, but Haga said Winningham handles it without much concern — certainly less than his head coach.
"I'd like him to be up by three or four points and be a lot more comfortable," said Haga, "but obviously he's not too worried about being in close matches. Some kids don't fight well through those one-point matches. It's more mental than anything, but he's OK with that. He's had some real tough, close matches. He's one who doesn't mind getting in there and getting his face beat up a little to get the job done."
Case in point was Winningham's finals match with Berger, who is a three-time state champion who has already signed to wrestle at the University of Nebraska. In the opening seconds of the championship match Saturday, Berger shot in and had his head hit squarely into Winningham's nose, causing blood to spurt from each nostril of the Comet wrestler.
"I went to block a shot and his forehead just hit me right in the nose on the bone part and it just started bleeding out pretty bad," said Winningham, who planned to get his nose checked in the coming days. "It's something I'm able to deal with so it's not that bad. It didn't really bother me in the match except for the fact that it was bleeding."
Instead of looking for an excuse, Winningham dug in and kept attacking Berger in the final match of the event.
"To me the telltale sign for him was in the start of the second period," said Haga. "(Berger) gets away and Tom shoots in on his legs but they go out of bounds. He then shoots again and it's a stalemate and they called the other kid for stalling. That's just his attitude, kind of let's get it on. Just because you come with credentials, he doesn't shy away."
Winningham said he went out and tried to do whatever he could against Berger but eventually was caught in a bad position and pinned.
"As an athlete you always get a little bit upset when you don't win," admitted Winningham, who placed fourth at 138 pounds in last year's 6A state tournament. "Even though you know he's that good, you still get a little upset."
It's that straightforward approach that Haga said should help Winningham complete his sophomore season with his feet firmly on the ground.
"He's such a solid kid that I think he's pretty much going to perform one way or the other no matter what happened over the weekend," said Haga. "This obviously is a confidence boost to him but I don't think to point where he'll think, 'I'm pretty good now and don't have to work as hard.' I think it's the opposite for him."
"It definitely boosts your confidence and makes you feel like you're definitely someone that people have to look out for and know that you're going to be a tough match when they have to see you," he said. "But you've always got to work on improving. I've just gotta keep raising the bar higher and higher. That's what we're here for, good matches and tough wrestling, and you want to be able to beat the best, so that always makes it fun out there for me."
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