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Great expectations

A four-year quest for an NAIA title by SOU's Wes Balensifer heads into the home stretch

ASHLAND ' Shoulda, coulda, woulda ' no athlete wants those three words associated with their career.

If Southern Oregon wrestler Wes Balensifer appears driven this season, it's for that very reason. The mellow senior has had enough of those words running through his mind.

You look back on your prior years and you say, 'I shoulda wrestled better; shoulda done this or coulda done that,' says the NAIA's top-ranked heavyweight. I want to wrestle this year with no shouldas. This is my last shot. I don't want to walk out thinking I shoulda, coulda, woulda.

It's a strategy that has evoked one of the best starts to a season in SOU history.

Falling two wins shy of a school record, Balensifer won 14 straight to open the season before losing to Arizona State's Cain Velasquez (ranked No. 7 among NCAA heavyweights) in the finals of the Reno Tournament of Champions.

— The 6-foot-1, 230-pounder then tacked on another 13 straight before last Saturday's last-second loss to second-ranked junior college standout Israel Silva of North Idaho College.

At 27-2, Balensifer is chomping at the bit to get another streak going Saturday when the fourth-ranked Raiders play host to Pacific at 7:30 p.m. in SOU's final home dual of the regular season. The NAIA Western Regionals are Feb. 14 in Ashland.

Losing just makes you want to get right back out there, says the two-time All-American.

Losing at the NAIA Championships, as has happened to Balensifer his three previous years, turns that desire into a mind-numbing obsession.

As a freshman for SOU, he shook up the national tournament by finishing second at 197 pounds to four-time NAIA champion Turk Lords of Montana State-Northern. Even though the Oregon State transfer qualified for nationals with an 8-6 record, he earned a spot in SOU's lineup based on the gut instinct of SOU head coach Mike Ritchey.

I just knew Wes was capable of winning matches, Ritchey recalls of that championship squad. I didn't expect him to get to the finals, but I just knew he was capable of doing something good for us.

All that performance did, however, was raise expectations of Balensifer ' and begin a steady dose of shoulda, coulda, woulda grumblings.

Balensifer spent the majority of his sophomore season ranked No. — at 197, only to have the rug pulled out from under him at nationals when he failed to place.

That was heartbreaking, says the 22-year-old. That was hard to live down.

It was a bitter end to a bitter season in which he came in at 235 and spent tireless hours cutting his weight down to 197.

the end it was too much for me, says the two-time state champion at Warrenton High. I've gotta give respect to guys who can cut weight all year and keep their mentality and their legs. I just couldn't do it. It destroyed me.

It also nearly destroyed his standing at the university. An over-emphasis on cutting weight led to lagging academic marks and an overall poor attitude.

Academically, mentally, physically ... I was just a complete different person, Balensifer recalls. I wasn't a very nice person to be around then. When you're constantly cutting weight, wrestling just consumes your life, at least that's the way it was for me.

It got so bad academically, Balensifer had to petition to remain at SOU when his GPA dropped below a 2.0 for two straight terms.

He was allowed to stay, and has made the most of that opportunity ever since. Balensifer is on pace to graduate this spring with a degree in business marketing, and has returned to form in every other regard after moving up to the heavyweight division.

Wes is competitive in everything he does, says Ritchey, who's not surprised by the transformation. From cribbage to lifting weights with (SOU football star and roommate Dusty) McGrorty, he's just one of those guys who's always competing.

Balensifer is also someone perfectly suited to the heavyweight class, according to assistant coach Fred Fozzard.

The best heavyweights are guys who come up from (197), says the former World Champion. Those are the guys who already know what it's like to wrestle. They can do more than just lean on the other guy.

In fact, Balensifer says 90 percent of his matches are won on his feet thanks to a swift double-leg takedown.

You give up a little but you gain a little, Balensifer says of being a light heavyweight. I try to make up for it with a little bit of speed.

And a whole lot of athleticism.

He's an explosive heavyweight and that's what makes him fun to watch, says Ritchey. He's not going to stand there and rub bellies like most heavyweights.

He fell into that trap in last year's semifinals and got tossed early by Lindenwood's Roger Miller, who carries about 50 more pounds on a frame much lower than Balensifer.

Miller ended up with five points off the first-period throw, and won the match 5-1 to advance into the championship finals. Balensifer dropped to the consolation bracket, lost a 4-2 decision to former teammate Mike Whitehead for a shot at third and had to settle for fifth place.

It's hard to come back from a loss at a national tournament because everyone's there to win it, says Balensifer. You want third place, but who really wants third place?

Making matters worse, he sat in disbelief as he watched Miller get torn apart in the finals by Montana State-Northern's Matt Carter.

That's the motivating factor this year, says Balensifer. I've played that match (with Miller in the semis) over in my mind about a thousand times.

Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

This year's going to be different, he concludes.

Southern Oregon University?s Wes Balensifer is off to one of the best starts in Raider wrestling history. The heavyweight boasts a 28-2 record. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli