For the past 11 years, Crater has been able to bring home a state trophy in wrestling under the guidance of head coach Greg Haga.

For the past 11 years, Crater has been able to bring home a state trophy in wrestling under the guidance of head coach Greg Haga.

Even though Haga won't be on hand for this year's state tournament, that doesn't mean the Comets are interested in settling for anything less than a 12th straight piece of hardware.

"We're definitely the underdogs, but weirder things have happened," said Crater interim head coach Denny Walters. "I never count us out. The way our kids are peaking right now, I think we'll give it a go."

Fresh off their fifth straight district championship, Walters said the Comets have really rallied around one another in the wake of Haga's two-year suspension by the Oregon School Activities Association and haven't missed a beat heading into the Class 5A state tournament, which runs today through Saturday.

"This is definitely a curveball for me, our coaching staff and the kids," Walters said of prepping for state without Haga for the first time in over 20 years. "Our kids have really stepped up, though. I think our intensity is there and the kids are really wrestling well. I'm pretty optimistic."

Walters said the OSAA action served to galvanize the Comets and, if possible, allowed the team to form an even closer bond than before.

"I feel the kids are wrestling for a bigger purpose here," he said. "I've always believed we're a family, and I just think the whole Haga thing has brought us a little closer together. I just see it in these kids' eyes every day."

Walters, a 1990 Crater High graduate and state champion wrestler for the Comets, has served as an assistant coach under Haga for the past 16 seasons, beginning in 1993. Walters realizes there are those who question how Crater will be able to perform at state without Haga nearby, but those doubters aren't in the Comets' wrestling room.

"I've been alongside coach Haga for 18 years," said Walters. "He's always been my mentor and I'm in this position of coaching because of him. I know what he did for me and I've seen what he's done for all these kids that have graduated from Crater each year.

"As far as running the practice room, we'd love to have him up there and at the state tournament, but these kids know they have a job to do and the reality is he's not going to be there. I think they're still going to shine. I don't see anything changing."

That held true last week during the Southern Sky Conference district tournament, although Walters admitted to burning up the phone lines with calls to Haga updating the coach on key win after key win.

"He probably got sick of me calling at district," said Walters with a laugh. "One time when I called him after about the fifth kid, he picked up the phone and right away said, 'Walters, I've already heard it. Leave me alone.'"

The joke helped ease the tension a little bit, and Walters said Haga has been nothing but supportive in the three weeks since taking over the team.

"Greg's been awesome," said Walters. "If I had to follow in anybody's footsteps, he'd be the one guy. He's been great about giving me a little bit of feedback but also letting me go, too."

Walters said he couldn't be happier with the support he and all those in the Crater program have been getting from alumni, past coaches and other community members.

"The support has just been great," he said. "How do you fill the shoes of a guy like Greg Haga? It was the curveball that I wasn't prepared for this year, but you just try to keep doing what he's been doing. I've gotten a lot of great advice from past coaches like (Haga's predecessor) Dan Speasl, saying 'You're doing the right thing' and 'Keep doing what you're doing.'"

Two-time defending champion Hermiston stands to be the favorite to claim the 5A title, qualifying 19 wrestlers for state — including 10 district champions. Thurston (15 qualifiers) and Hillsboro (13) also will join Crater in challenging for the title.

The Comets initially qualified 19 for the state tourney, but have had to scratch 130-pounder Daniel Hill and Rickey Lockey (215) due to injury. Hill entered the district tourney with a shoulder injury but gutted his way into the finals before giving way to an injury default, while Lockey suffered a concussion at district.

"I feel bad for the two kids because I know how much it meant to them," said Walters, "but the good thing about it is they're both sophomores and they'll be set up well for next year."

Crater expects to be led by returning state placers Brock Gutches (152), Kenny Fahndrich (160), Darrio Mobley (215), Brandon Hesse (285) and Skyler Prislac (103). Gutches will be vying for his second straight state title after finishing as runner-up as a freshman and sophomore.

"It's a little bit of a setback with 17 guys now, but I feel pretty comfortable about bringing home that hardware," said Walters. "I like our team that we're taking up there. Young or old, I think we're going to compete."

Eagle Point, Crater's chief rival in the SSC, has high hopes of making a splash at state again this year after finishing among the top six in each of the past three seasons. The Comets edged the Eagles for last year's fourth-place trophy.

Eagle Point returns only one state placer in Steven Josephson (171), but district champions Aaron Lorenz (103), Daniel Soto (119), Trent Kaiser (130) and runners-up Garrett Davis (152) and Taylor Marasco (171) also stand to make some noise in Portland.

The young Eagles dropped out of the top 15 in the 5A rankings leading up to state, but head coach Kacey McNulty doesn't envision his team finishing that low once all is said and done.

"I've been telling the kids that you guys need to earn your respect, and I think they're counting on doing that," he said. "We have young kids that haven't gotten the recognition and people don't know about, so we'll just have to go up there and surprise some people."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com