Southern Oregon went without a wrestling state champion for the first time in more than a decade at last year's state tournament but the area is ripe with hopefuls capable of making sure that status isn't extended.
With 13 wrestlers among the top three seeds spread across the Class 6A to 3A levels, the Rogue Valley expects to be well-represented in a title chase that begins Friday and runs through Saturday at the Memorial Coliseum in Portland.
At the 6A level, North Medford's Trent Wilson (No. 2 at 195 pounds) and Henry Cox (No. 3 at 106) stand to lead the charge, along with Grants Pass' Casey Coulter (No. 1 at 113), Tyler Thomas (No. 1 at 126) and Kjell Thorsen (No. 3 at 152).
Ashland's Mason Montgomery (220) and Cody Frost-Eisenberg (285) join fellow No. 2 seeds from Eagle Point James McCoy (152) and Hunter Hoeptner (160) as leading 5A hopefuls.
Phoenix's Kyle Bradfield is a No. 3 seed for the 4A tournament, while Illinois Valley's 3A hopes stand to be led by Theo Hughey (No. 1 at 170), John Britt (No. 3 at 182) and Eric Miller (No. 3 at 126).
Throw in returning state finalist Izzy Rubio of Phoenix (170) and capable No. 4 seeds Dom Harris of South Medford (6A 285) and Eagle Point's quartet of Levi Pomeroy (126), Alek Callahan (132), Sean Freeman (170) and Ethan Pomeroy (195), and the Rogue Valley could be in store for quite a finish during Saturday night's finals.
"Let's face it, our conference is pretty strong so when you take a kid out of our conference then they have a shot to do real well up there," says Crater head coach Greg Haga, who will have seven Comets in action this weekend. "I'm real confident with our kids and our goal, like always, is to have our best wrestling at the state tournament."
With 13 wrestlers in tow after a stellar showing to win the Class 5A District 4 Regional, Eagle Point's hopes go beyond any individual honors. The Eagles should be in the mix for the program's fifth state championship if all can wrestle to their capabilities.
"We're going with the mindset that we can win a state title," said Eagle Point head coach Kacey McNulty, "but it's going to be tough. There's about seven teams that are pretty evenly matched so it's going to take a little luck, too. Luck comes to those who are prepared, and hopefully we are prepared. It's gonna be a dogfight."
Roseburg is the prohibitive favorite to claim the 6A team title after a dominant performance in the regionals that saw the Indians advance 22 wrestlers to the state tourney. Hillsboro stands to be Roseburg's chief competitor, although Haga said he wouldn't be surprised to see the Indians set a new tournament scoring record with their loaded lineup.
Crook County, which won the Reser's Tournament of Champions, appears to be a lock for the 4A crown, while Dallas, Lebanon, Hermiston, Hood River Valley, Pendleton and Sandy join Eagle Point as leaders in the 5A mix.
North Medford hasn't produced an individual state champion in the program's history since Medford split into two high schools in 1986, but the top-ranked Cox and third-ranked Wilson — who placed fourth last year — give rise to that drought potentially coming to an end this year. Both qualified for state last year, along with teammate Cole Hornbrook, and have more than 30 victories under their belt.
"Henry Cox and Trent Wilson definitely have a good shot," said North Medford head coach Phillip Lopez. "They've got to still wrestle aggressive but I think they've been preparing for it and have been there before so they're going to do fine."
Hornbrook and Skyler Black (220) have also been consistent for the Tornado thus far and, like anyone when it gets down to the final 16 at each weight class, have a chance to become state placers.
"Once you're at the state tournament," said Lopez, "they're pulling the top 16 out of the state so anything can happen when you're there. You've just got to go and let everything hang out."
That philosophy was on display during the regional tourney, when South Medford's Harris pulled off a stunning undefeated run through the heavyweight bracket to claim the title. Panthers head coach Greg Bryant said Harris is excited to keep the momentum going this weekend as he looks to become South Medford's first state champion since Ian Taylor in 2000.
South Medford's Brandon Brooks (170) will be making a repeat trip to the state tourney and is also capable of finishing as a state placer.
"Brooks has that motivation and drive and that experience you need to make that happen," added Bryant.
The same could be said for a handful of Crater wrestlers destined to shake things up this weekend. Nate Walters (132), Jason Comer (145), Tommy Winningham (152), Jerry Delafuente (160), Cavin Gillispie (170), Micah Walker (182) and Mike Rios (285) have each shown the capacity to rise to the occasion in big tournaments.
"The bottom line is I told our guys that it really doesn't matter what the seeding is, they just separate people on how they wrestled last week and not how they've done this year," said Haga. "It's just time to get in there and fight and give it the best we've got and see what happens from there."
Montgomery knows something about that and likely returns as the hungriest of all from the area to finish his career on top. The Ashland standout was undefeated last year when he lost in the 195 finals to Hermiston freshman Samuel Shields-Colbray, and that unfulfilling finish has kept him on his toes throughout another unbeaten run this year at 220.
Montgomery's chief opposition stands to come from top-ranked Steely Smith of West Albany, who needed four overtimes to beat Ashland's Cody Frost-Eisenberg in last year's opening match before falling two points shy in the championship finals.
Frost-Eisenberg placed fourth at state last year, making it on a wrestleback after finishing fifth in the regional, but has taken well to his new role at heavyweight and is ranked No. 2 to Roosevelt defending champion Semise Kofe.
Ashland's Chance Swenson has the unenviable task of facing Shields-Colbray in Friday's opening match at 195.
Hoeptner placed third, McCoy fourth and Eddie Perez-Rivera (126) sixth in last year's state tournament, but the depth of talent may be Eagle Point's key to earning a trophy. With the Pomeroys, Callahan and Freeman joining Mikey Johnson (106), Christian Torrico (113), Ivan Valle (113), Michael Hammond (120), Loren Denn (138) and Blain Cloney (182), the Eagles have a legitimate shot at scoring points with all 13 qualifiers.
"We're going to have to get a few guys in the finals and have a lot of placers," said McNulty. "We'll see what kind of perseverance and resilience they have after they get beat. In a tournament like this, unless you're a state champion, you're gonna suffer a loss so they're all going to have to come back and win some matches for the team and for themselves."
Phoenix takes 10 wrestlers overall into the state tournament, including all five seniors on the roster, and has enough firepower to challenge for a state trophy. Bradfield won the lone regional title for the Pirates and is set up for a good showing at 145 to lead the way, while Rubio will look to renew his rivalry with Henley's Gary Jantzer, who has edged him for the state and regional titles in recent years.
Sophomore Trace Vega is unseeded but took second at the regional, while Phoenix head coach John Farmer said he has high hopes at 120 between the likes of Richard Orndorff and Zeke Flores.
The Pirates also have a pair of wrestlers at 126 in sophomores Mark McAlister and Cedrus King, along with Braden Vega at 160, William Frazee at 170 and Travis Stainbrook at 182.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry