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ASHLAND — Boise State's loss has been Southern Oregon's gain this wrestling season.

And what a gain it has been.

A year after leaving the Division I Broncos with an ailing back and no plans to wrestle again, Brock Gutches is making the Raiders, not to mention Rogue Valley wrestling fans, happy that he changed his mind.

A former two-time state champion at Crater High, Gutches is the No. 2-ranked 174-pound NAIA wrestler in the nation following recent wins over third-ranked Ty Knowler of Grand View (Iowa) and fifth-ranked Derek Peperas of Oklahoma City.

Gutches got off to a rocky start as a Raider, losing four of his first seven matches. But his conditioning has since caught up to his talent, and he's won six matches in a row heading into today's three-match road swing through northern California against Stanford, Menlo and San Francisco State.

There's a good chance Gutches will find out exactly how far he's come — and how far he has yet to go — at Stanford, where former Phoenix standout Nick Amuchastegui, the top-ranked NCAA Division I 174-pounder, awaits.

"It's a great opportunity," Gutches said. "I've got nothing to lose and it's going to be a good match either way."

Despite starring at Crater, Gutches took the long road to Ashland. He won 171 of 180 matches as a Crater Comet, advanced to four state championship matches and won the 2009 Greco-Roman National Championship to land a scholarship at Boise State. There, as a freshman redshirting in 2009-10, Gutches went 12-1 and won three tournaments while wrestling as an unattached 165-pounder.

The following season, Gutches suffered a back injury that ended up costing him the entire season. He tried to wrestle through the pain and stay in the lineup, but eventually succumbed and called it a season. The experience was taxing on his body and he decided to return home and put his wrestling life behind him for good.

"I needed to move home and get my head straight," Gutches said. "I wasn't even planning on wrestling, and (SOU) coach (Mike Ritchey) called me and asked what I was planning on doing. I decided, 'What the heck, I might as well give it a shot.'"

"It was a bit of a risk considering his circumstance," Ritchey said. "I really didn't know what to expect. I just figured here's an opportunity, and he's either going to be able to do it or not. But I knew if I could get him going again that he would be as good as he is. It was just a matter of getting him to a point where he's comfortable."

Gutches, who was awarded a medical redshirt and has four years of eligibility at SOU, eventually got to that point, but it took time.

A year removed from live competition, he struggled initially as he worked his body back into wrestling shape. His first match as a Raider, Dec. 3 against Trent Noon of Clackamas Community College, went down as a hard-fought setback — an 8-7 decision. Later that same day he earned his first win as a Raider, pinning Kolbjorn Skaflestad of Southwestern Oregon Community College in 4:07.

The season-opening loss was not a big surprise to Gutches, who expected a few hiccups along the way as he continued to regain his stamina.

"I was pretty nervous because I had been out for so long," he said, "not about my back so much, because I had been working out and knew my back was going to be fine. I knew how to protect my back and how to avoid those injuries, but my main concern was just getting back into shape. I wasn't in the shape that I needed to be in."

Gutches dropped three of his next five matches, but his record was deceiving because each of those losses came against Division I wrestlers, and two were decisions settled by a single point.

After suffering a 5-4 setback to Wyoming's Patrick Martinez on Dec. 18, Gutches seemed to turn a corner. He pinned Brady Garner of CSU Bakersfield later that day, and in his first match back from Christmas break — in the NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals in Springfield, Ill. — Gutches earned his most significant win of the season, a 3-1 decision over Knowler. Later the same day, Gutches put another huge notch on his belt when he edged Peperas in another 3-1 decision.

The double whammy impressed the NAIA coaches, who promptly moved Gutches from ninth to second in the national rankings.

And just like that, a guy who was out of the sport six months prior was suddenly a legitimate national title contender — one of several on the Raiders' roster.

"I don't know if it's a surprise," Gutches said, "but I'm real happy that I could climb the ranks that fast. I definitely didn't expect that, but getting to face the second- and third-ranked wrestlers in the same tournament — you don't get those opportunities all the time."

If Gutches keeps winning, he may indeed get another opportunity to face multiple ranked wrestlers on the same day when Southern Oregon travels to Des Moines, Iowa, March 1-3 for the NAIA National Championships.

It could be a historic trip.

Thanks in part to Gutches, who is one of seven Raiders ranked in the top 10, Southern Oregon is the No. 2-ranked team in the nation with three weeks to go in the regular season. If Gutches has his way, he'll help SOU hoist its fifth NAIA National Championship trophy the same day he earns some hardware of his own.

"My goal is to be a national champion," he said. "I did have some close matches with some of the top guys, but the next time I wrestle them I want to dominate. I don't want to just win close matches, I go out to dominate."

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