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After long season, Raiders brace for nationals

Southern Oregon University senior wrestlers Dan Herb and Abe Ewing have waited all season for this coming weekend. Friday, the NAIA national championships start in Sioux City, Iowa. For two days, the best wrestlers from around the country will grapple for supremacy.

The winners take home trophies, championships and the glory of being the best; the losers must wait another year for their chance. For Herb, Ewing and the rest of the Raiders that qualified for the tournament, there has been enough waiting. This journey to the Midwest started in late-October.

At the top of Park Street the entire skyline of Ashland is visible. The asphalt is smooth and flat, spreading out into a circle. There's enough room to turn a car around. Madrone trees around the asphalt drop yellow leaves; their brown/orange bark peels off in sections. Figures at the bottom of the street are running up the slope. Their gray and black workout clothes bounce with each step.

The wrestlers are completing their preseason training. Today, they completed "The Run". Mostly a circuit-style course, "The Run" begins at McNeal Pavilion and creeps down to East Main Street. The course then winds down to Albertsons, where it's back around to Park Street, then straight up to the top. The goal is simple: to build the mental and physical endurance needed to overcome fatigue.

SOU head coach Mike Richey meets his wrestlers at the top of the hill. He makes sure no one is injured, that the players are all right. Practice, he informs them, is over. The five-mile run keeps them in shape and helps avoid unnecessary injuries right before the season starts. Running that distance in hilly terrain pushes wrestlers to work harder; they must continue through sore feet, burning legs and tired lungs.

The hard work is necessary, says Richey, to help the younger wrestlers develop. In wrestling, an "all out" attitude breeds success; the ability to continue until the other wrestler cannot or will not. For this team, success must be earned the hard way.

In coach Richey's tenure the Raiders have never returned fewer than three All-Americans. This year, Richey lost six and returned only one &

sophomore Trevor Lofstedt. The roster is full of younger wrestlers, although several return with national tournament experience. On top of this is the weight of "the streak."

Tacking on No. 37 to the program's consecutive winning dual-meet seasons streak is something the wrestlers unanimously agree upon as a season goal. Coach Richey agrees, saying its one of the biggest goals of the season.

Being young isn't always bad. The youthful vigor of the team has them seemingly stuck in high-gear. Each wrestler takes the mat with fervor. These young men don't act inexperienced. They do, however, expect to win.

"The team is young and tough," said Herb. "They push each other, and have great work ethic. We will push each other."

This team wasn't expected to do much at a national level. Coach Richey thinks that the Raiders might be able to send a full contingent to the national championship. Herb thinks they can do more.

"I want us to win the team national championship. It takes only one good tournament run by a team that is in sync."

One tournament stands as a testing ground for the national championship: the regional qualifier. Placing in the top four at this tournament guarantees a spot in Sioux City. For some wrestlers this is the last chance to make the championship.

For the Raiders, this is a special event. It gives the Raiders the opportunity to put everything together and make a run. Also, in a stroke of luck, the Raiders hosted this year's event, which gave them a distinct home mat advantage.

The Raiders entered the Western Regional Tournament after a long, tough season. The young team overcame expectations and succeeded. The team finished with a record of 7-3 in dual meets, sealing their 37th consecutive winning season.

Momentum also proved important, as the Western Regional boasted one of the toughest talent pools of the year. Of those that competed 20 are ranked nationally, several were returning All-Americans, and six teams were ranked nationally. Four of the wrestlers were ranked No. — in their weight class.

The Raiders were forced to battle their fiercest. Two of SOU's top performers, Lofstedt and Ewing, finished second in their weight classes, 125 and 197 pounds, respectively. Their near victories helped pace a vigorous Raider attack. The team's efforts garnered them second place with 122 points. In doing so, the Raiders qualified 12 wrestlers for the national championship tournament, and moved a step closer to their goal.

Things are starting to click and the Raiders are wrestling well when it really counts. And, according to Herb, if the Raiders put together one good tournament run, at the right time, they might just win it all.

The Raiders who qualified for the national championship tournament are: Lofstedt, Ewing, Junior Valladolid (133), Dan Herb (141), Bo Icalia (149), Tomas Rosa (149), Jimmy Ulrey (157), Joel Gibson (165), Ricky Farrell (174), Jason Appleton (174), Chase Locke (184) and Skylar Massey (285).

The NAIA national championships start on Friday and continue through Saturday evening in the Tyson Event Center in Sioux City, Iowa. Action is set to begin at 9 a.m., Central time.

Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.