TOPEKA, Kan. — The same Southern Oregon University wrestling team that not long ago had more questions surrounding it than any in recent history helped the program make yet another sizable mark at the NAIA Championships.
Six All-Americans pushed the Raiders to a fourth-place finish by the time the dust settled Saturday night at the Kansas Expocentre.
And, once again, there was never a question about the performance of Brock Gutches. The junior product of Central Point became the first 174-pounder in NAIA history to win three titles, securing his latest with a 3-2 decision against Montana State-Northern's Jared Miller. He was named the tournament's outstanding wrestler and the NAIA Wrestler of the Year.
Gutches, who is now 13-0 all-time at the tournament, is the 26th wrestler to win three NAIA championships at any weight, and the second SOU wrestler to accomplish the feat after Mitchell Lofstedt did it last year. Only six NAIA wrestlers have pulled off a four-peat, which Gutches will have a chance to do in 2015.
He was far from alone in representing SOU on the last day of the season. Taylor Johnson claimed third place at 197-pounds, 149-pounder Tyler Cowger was fifth, 125-pounder Jake Stigall sixth, 184-pounder Jacob Abrams seventh and heavyweight Clayton Burtis eighth.
"I think we came in and rose to the occasion, and that's what you worry about with a young group like this," SOU head coach Mike Ritchey said. "I had to prepare them a little differently than I have in the past but I think they handled what I threw at them well without scratching their heads too much. It's awesome to see them rewarded for that."
Grand View (Iowa), the only team with more All-Americans than SOU, steamrolled its way to a third consecutive team title, more than doubling up every opponent with a record-tying 193 points and five individual champs. With 80.5 points, SOU just missed its fifth runner-up finish in the last six years. MSU-Northern had 84.5 and Great Falls (Mont.) crammed into third with 83.5.
Gutches was responsible for 25.5 of those points. After starting with a pin and a technical fall on Friday, he had to go through Grand View's Jimmie Schuessler, last year's NAIA victor at 165 pounds, and pinned him head-and-arm exactly two minutes into their semifinal bout.
The title matchup against Miller was their second this season. Gutches needed just 2:24 to pin him on Nov. 21, and this time he took a 2-1 lead into the second round with an early takedown. Miller got his point with an escape, and escaped again late in the third round to tie it, but Gutches knew he had the riding time advantage that would give him the decisive point.
"I had a chance to take (Miller) down in the first round and kind of messed up a little bit, but he wrestled well and we both stayed on our feet the entire time after that," Gutches said. "To be honest, I was probably more prepared for that semifinal match, but a win's a win. It feels really good."
Gutches, who wasn't the victim of a single takedown all weekend, finished the season with a record of 35-3 — undefeated against NAIA competition — and 18 wins by fall, the fifth-most in SOU single-season history. He gave the Raiders their 33rd individual crown since 1977.
"He's just about as dominant as they come," Ritchey said, "and he's very deserving of all the recognition and the titles."
Johnson became the 24th SOU wrestler to place third and went 6-1 at the tournament to finish 22-4. In Improving on his fifth-place finish of 2013, he won his final match by fall against Missouri Valley's Josh Manu in a mere 1:03. Manu was 36-5 coming into it.
Johnson, who took his only loss in the quarterfinals against eventual champion Jesse Hellinger of Dickinson State, began Saturday with consolation wins over Lindsey Wilson's Jahwon Akui (12-0) and Cumberlands' Samuel Johnson (12-7).
Cowger, a true freshman, went 4-2 in the tournament, and Stigall, a redshirt-freshman, was 5-2. Cowger won his first match of the day against Embry-Riddle's Colin Merkley (6-2), was pinned by Great Falls' Ryan Martin and then clinched fifth place with a 5-2 decision over Morningside's Tyler Lashbrook, finishing the season 29-13. Stigall, who ended 18-14, won his first match of the day against York's Oscar Marin, 6-4, and lost his last two to Missouri Baptist's Chris Padilla (13-2) and Concordia's Austin Mogg (7-2).
"That's a lot of pressure for them to come in here as young guys for the first time and wrestle well," Gutches said. "For them to place, that's a huge accomplishment."
Abrams duplicated his performance of a year ago by claiming seventh again. He won the seventh-place match in a 7-4 decision against Dan Capp of Hannibal-LeGrange, finishing up at 29-12 overall.
Burtis, who became an All-American on Friday with an overtime consolation win against Morningside's Tyler Kacmarynski, lost his last two matches and finished his season 19-5.
All of SOU's All-Americans are eligible to return next season.
"We tried to keep them hungry all year and help them understand how much work it takes rather than just showing them," Ritchey said. "I think they're hungry now."