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Seventh heaven?

What’s the best way to become a multiple national champion in wrestling?

In the world of Southern Oregon University senior Brock Gutches, the simple answer has been to stop trying.

That doesn’t mean stop training, mind you, or stop setting your goals high. It simply means taking each moment as its own special entity.

So while the bulk of those at the NAIA Wrestling Championships, which run today and Saturday in Topeka, Kan., will be intently watching to see if Gutches can make history at 174 pounds, those in the SOU program carry another viewpoint.

Gutches, a 2009 Crater High graduate, will attempt to become just the seventh wrestler in NAIA history to win four national titles when he takes the mat this morning. He was named outstanding wrestler at last year’s championships and owns a 13-0 all-time record at the event with seven falls and one technical fall.

But while his potential total may be four, the Raider camp is viewing it as one.

“Being an athlete and going for a fourth time, it can be kind of stressful,” Gutches, 24, says of preparing for his final trip to the NAIA championships. “I really got caught up in it after I won my first national title that I was the defending national champion and I had to come back and defend my title. It was a bad inner struggle for me, it was bad.”

At the end of that year, SOU head coach Mike Ritchey could see that the young wrestler was struggling with shouldering that weight so he called for a meeting and really broke it down to Gutches in terms that made it pretty simple.

“He just told me you’re not going out to defend your title, you won that title ... it’s in my house,” Gutches says of the pivotal talk. “He said, essentially, that I’m really just going out to win another one. So this week I’m going out to win one more national title, everybody else can count it however they want.”

Whatever the final outcome may be, there’s no denying Gutches has made a lasting impact on an already rich Raiders wrestling history.

Gutches became the 26th wrestler in the nation — and the first 174-pounder — to win three NAIA titles last year. He has only one loss in his career against an NAIA opponent (15-12 decision by MSU-Northern’s Max Payne on Dec. 13, 2012) and has a combined record of 84-9 over the last three seasons, including 22-8 against NCAA Division I opponents.

Gutches, who was a four-time state finalist and two-time champion at Crater, also ranks second on SOU’s career pins list to Mitchell Lofstedt (whose record is 86). Last May, he was the only individual to medal in both the Greco-Roman and Freestyle ASICS University National Championships, taking bronze in both at 176 pounds. Gutches also placed third at the U.S. World Team Trials last year and was the first NAIA wrestler since 2004 to compete in the NWCA All-Star Classic’s main event in October.

“Brock is definitely a vocal leader and a guy who leads by example,” says Ritchey. “He understands the sport so well, it’s kind of like having an extra coach in the room.”

What has helped set Gutches apart, according to his coach, is a great combination of physical and mental strengths.

“His intensity is what sets him apart,” says Ritchey. “He’s going to give you seven hard minutes, even if it’s the beginning of the year when he’s not in the greatest shape yet. He’s in your face constantly as a wrestler and he’s really tough to score on. He’s probably one of the best defensive wrestlers I’ve ever coached. I don’t know how many takedowns he’s given up this year, but it’s not many.”

And, as it has been throughout a career that began when Gutches was 4, most of that success comes from his hips.

“He’s got really good hips,” says Ritchey. “He just really can put a lot of weight on a guy’s shoulder when he’s got hold of the leg. If you shoot on him, your chances of scoring are pretty low in my book. And he doesn’t really care if people shoot because he can score off your shots as well as he can score on his own. It’s a good combination to have.”

Even this far into his career, which potentially may extend to international competition after this week, Gutches says he still gets excited each time he steps on the mat.

“One of the things that I really love about wrestling is every time any wrestler steps on the mat, you’re putting a bit of your manhood on the line,” he says. “We step out in tight spandex outfits and we’re in front of a group of people and it’s combat with another guy. You essentially put your manhood on the line and I like that.”

“I also enjoy how everything is on me,” adds Gutches. “If I go out and I mess something up, it’s on me.”

That interpersonal quality has definitely been a driving force for Gutches, who like any good athlete wrestles with taking the good with the bad.

“He’s probably his own worst critic about his performance,” says Ritchey, “but that’s kind of way champions are, they’re driven. They can find imperfection in perfection. But that keeps you driving and working hard and keeping better.”

“Some guys can rest on their laurels and he’s not that way,” adds the coach. “He’s a focused individual and he’s got goals and he’s going to go after them. He’s the kind of guy that’s going to control his own destiny, he’s not going to wait to see what happens.”

Achieving those goals on competition days is only the tip of the iceberg for someone like Gutches. For a Thursday dual meet, he’ll start preparing mentally and physically on the prior Saturday, with a huge focus on eating right and training his body to be at its peak for the day of competition.

And while others may shy away from being looked at as a bracket favorite, Gutches embraces that moniker.

“If there’s no pressure on you, what’s the point of doing anything?” he says. “There’s that saying if something was easy, everybody would do it. I think the saying should be if it was easy nobody would do it because there would be no point. Having that pressure, I think that’s fun. I like stepping out on the line and I like guys to know that I’m there for a fight no matter if they’re the first-ranked guy or second-ranked guy or not ranked at all, I’m going to come out and wrestle them the exact same way. I think a lot of people know that about me now.”

And, should things go his way this weekend, they’ll also be able to wrap up his collegiate career knowing he was a national champion in 2015.

To go with 2014, 2013 and 2012.

“It would be awesome for me to do it,” admits Gutches, who credits the support of his parents Kent and Terrie Gutches for the main reason he’s been successful. “That would just kind of make all my time and sacrifices in wrestling worthwhile and validate all the hard work to get here.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry