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A new year brought about a new wrestling style for North Medford sophomore Henry Cox, and it definitely seems to have suited him thus far.
Cox is among a number of local wrestling standouts who will look to make some noise during this weekend's District 4 Regional Championships, entering the eight-team state qualifier with a Black Tornado-best 31-3 record.
The 5-foot-7 standout is ranked No. 1 at 106 pounds, although Cox is seeded second to Roseburg freshman Bennett Mesa, who is No. 2 in the Class 6A state rankings, for the two-day tourney in Roseburg that begins Friday.
"Henry's been our best wrestler all year," says first-year North Medford head coach Phillip Lopez. "He's only lost one match in Oregon and the two down in Nevada were against top-10 California kids and good matches."
Cox has 21 pins and one technical fall among his 31 victories, falling just shy of another tech fall with his 14-1 decision over Eagle Point's Christian Torrico in the 113-pound title match during the Rogue Valley Championships.
Gaining pins is something that has really only popped up for Cox over the last couple years, but he credits Lopez with giving his wrestling a boost this season.
"I'm a lot more aggressive than I was last year," says Cox, 16. "Just the way coach (Lopez) has been teaching me how to wrestle is a lot different than (former North coach Nolan Harris). I'm attacking and shooting more often, and not being on the defensive like I was last year. I'm just trying to keep up the tempo and it definitely fits me better."
Cox says he began wrestling when he was 4 years old and was immediately taken by a sport most aren't willing to take on because of all its challenges.
"It's one of those sports that not everyone does because it's pretty tough and not a lot of people can handle it," he says. "I like to think that I can handle it a little better than the others and that's why I've kept with it."
Cox had a solid introduction to high school wrestling last year, placing third at the regionals to earn his first chance at the Class 6A state tournament. Up in Portland, however, the experience was not as positive as he would've hoped. Cox went 0-2 with a 10-1 loss in the opener and a tech fall loss in consolation action.
"That's been on my mind a lot," he says of how last season ended. "That's definitely not going to happen again, that's for sure."
His freshman campaign wasn't a total loss for Cox, however. He advanced as high as No. 7 in the state rankings and got to train against regional champion Austin Mitchell, who as a senior was a No. 2 seed at 106 in the state tourney.
"It helped me having someone who could always beat me at practice for sure," says Cox. "Having someone beat up on me like Austin helped me a lot mentally to prepare for this season."
Cox began the season with the intent of earning a championship at the regional and state levels, and it was a fifth-place showing at the Sierra Nevada Classic in December that shined a light on that being a realistic possibility.
"I thought that was a big accomplishment for me," he says, noting he didn't place at all one year ago at the event. "That tournament is quite a bit bigger than the state tournament and there was something like 68 kids in my bracket, so it was pretty good to place at that."
It was there that Cox suffered two of his three defeats, one on a 3-0 decision by Chris Marrin of Clovis West and another on a first-period pin by Benicia's Christian Ramos. His only other loss this year — and lone one to an Oregon wrestler — was when Dallas standout Cody Bibler scored an 11-0 major decision in the championship final at the season-opening North Bend Coast Classic.
Other than those matches, Lopez says Cox has "pretty much been putting a stamp on him being one of the top 106 pounders." He stormed through the brackets in the Grants Pass Winter Kickoff, the Rogue Valley Championships, Eagle Point Invitational and Willie Wilkinson Memorial Tournament without a loss.
"He's a pretty solid guy and can wrestle anyone in the country," says Lopez. "He just has to keep plugging away like he has been. He's kind of a machine when he's on top."
Cox says he's a lot stronger this season and that has helped him secure so many pins at 106, although that's not his intent when he steps out on the mat.
"It's exciting to get pins but I try not to let it get to my head," he says. "Pins are good but I'm just waiting for that state tournament, that's my ultimate goal. I definitely want to be a state champion and I've been working hard all season for that."
Lopez says the No. 1 state ranking for his wrestler is well-deserved, especially given his transformation into more of an offensive-minded wrestler.
"He's just mean and he wrestles forward," says the coach. "He fights in every position very well and never stops moving. He's a really good hand fighter and he just doesn't give up position. Like a lot of the top wrestlers, he doesn't give a lot of windows to take a good shot from."
Cox definitely feels like he's a more well-rounded wrestler these days, and sees himself peaking at this time of the season. His No. 2 seeding at the state tourney likely has to do with a preseason club wrestling loss to Mesa in October but Cox has been able to hold firmly to the No. 1 state ranking throughout the high school season.
"It just makes me wrestle harder because I know people are trying to beat me and everyone's looking out for me," he says of the top ranking. "It keeps me motivated to stay up in first and win it all eventually."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry