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Raiders wrap up regional crown in style

ASHLAND — Southern Oregon's third-ranked wrestling team proved there was no time like the present to start gearing up for the NAIA National Championships, securing a fourth straight West Regional title with an impressive showing Saturday at the Bob Riehm Arena.

Southern Oregon crowned four champions and had four others place second to run away with the championship at the six-team qualifying tournament. The Raiders scored 164 points to overcome fourth-ranked Great Falls (137.5) and No. 8 Montana State-Northern (106.5), with Menlo (84), Wayland Baptist (66.5) and Embry-Riddle (53.5) rounding out the field.

Key to the strong showing was a semifinal round that saw SOU catch fire and advance eight wrestlers into the finals in seven weight classes — both 184-pounders Austin Vanderford and Derek Rottenberg advanced to a championship showdown.

"The semis were huge in a tournament like this and we punched eight guys through to the finals and that kind of got things rolling," said SOU head coach Mike Ritchey, who was named West Region coach of the year. "Then the guys in the backdoor came back and got all in the top four so now we've got 12 guys essentially with seeds at the national tournament. That's huge for trying to do something when we get back to Iowa."

SOU already had 10 qualifiers for the national championships — set March 1-3 in Des Moines, Iowa — heading into Saturday's action before 174-pounders Brock Gutches and Tyler Thomas secured their spots with top-four finishes in the regional. Gutches won the title with a pin in 2 minutes, 15 seconds against Montana State-Northern's Jared Miller, while Thomas placed fourth.

"This was a pretty big deal for me," said Gutches, who was a two-time state champion at Crater High. "I was nervous about it because this is a deal-breaker on whether I go (to nationals) or not so it was real important to me."

Gutches was admittedly a little sluggish in his first two matches Saturday, scoring a 14-9 decision over MSU-Northern's Max Payne and then a 4-2 win over Menlo's Nick Gill in the semifinals. The redshirt freshman, who transferred from Boise State, pounced on Miller midway through the first period, then slammed him to the mat to get into pinning position. After patiently clinching in his finishing move, the third-ranked Gutches was awarded the pin with 45 seconds left in the first period.

"I haven't been feeling too great lately," said Gutches. "Everybody's sick a little bit right now but I was definitely feeling it a little bit. I didn't do too well in my first two matches but my third match, I wrestled a lot better I feel."

The ability to now take a dozen wrestlers to nationals was not lost on Ritchey, who was pleased with the overall performance of his Raiders and their ability to step up when it mattered the most.

"That was huge to get those guys (Gutches and Thomas) to complete the 12 to head to Iowa," said the coach. "It's going to take 12 guys and maybe 12 All-Americans, who knows, to come back with a banner. Hopefully we can carry this forward and use the momentum to get prepared. Winning regionals is nice and getting the four-peat is awesome for the guys, but we've got aspirations still yet to come. We're not going to celebrate this too much, maybe a little."

Top-ranked junior Mitchell Lofstedt got things off to a great start at 125 pounds, pinning all three of his opponents en route to his title. Lofstedt now has 22 pins heading into nationals, just two shy of his own single-season record at SOU. His late father Brent Lofstedt had the Raiders' previous record of 20 pins in a season, and the 2010 national champion and '09 runner-up is only 16 wins behind Nick Cline's school record of 129.

SOU sophomore Dalton Urrutia dominated his championship final at 157 against MSU-Northern's Mickey Cheff for about 51/2 minutes before Cheff threw caution to the wind with a late flurry in the final 90 seconds. Urrutia opened a 4-0 lead in the first period but only held a 7-5 edge with riding time with 45 seconds to go. The final 30 seconds had fans on both sides screaming in excitement, with Urrutia holding Cheff off for a 7-5 triumph.

The Raiders were guaranteed a champion when fifth-ranked Vanderford and seventh-ranked Rottenberg stepped on the mat for the finals at 184. Instead of opting for a conventional coin flip prior to the action in the event of such a championship meeting, the SOU duo wanted to have the regional championship determined on the mat. Neither wrestler gave an inch in the finals, surprisingly making it one of the more active matches of the night.

Vanderford opened a 2-0 lead with a takedown in the final 35 seconds of the first period, then took a 3-0 lead into the third and final period. After Rottenberg scored an early escape, Vanderford followed with a quick takedown to go up 5-1. Rottenberg's escape with 55 seconds left put his deficit at 5-2, and then the thrill of the title chase turned frightening for a split second as both wrestlers had their heads slam against the other as each went for a shot.

Visibly shaken by the collision, Vanderford stumbled off the mat in pain and dropped to his knees to regain composure with 35 seconds still to go. A bit bleary-eyed, Vanderford returned after a minute of stoppage time to score another takedown and eventually claim an 8-3 win over his teammate.

"That's like 'Oh no, maybe we should've flipped the coin,'" Ritchey said of the sudden shift of emotion in the 184 final. "But since they're both seniors and both want to win a national title, you've got to earn that seed honestly and a coin flip just didn't seem right with those seniors. It worked out, though, thankfully."

Miguel Baltazar (133), Jimmy Eggemeyer (149) and Brian Lemmon (165) each joined Rottenberg in placing second. Also advancing to nationals were Kyle Wirkuty (fourth at 141), Derek Mestrovich (third at 165) and Bubba Owens (third at 285).

"I definitely think we have a chance," Gutches said of SOU's national title hopes. "The guys on the team are awesome and all hard workers. They're the kind of people that I like to be around so it's been a good change for me."

MSU-Northern's Anthony Weerhiem was named outstanding wrestler at the regional after upsetting defending national champion Anthony Varnell of Great Falls, 5-3 in overtime. Weerhiem led 3-1 with one minute to go before a Varnell escape and a stalling penalty in the waning seconds sent the match into OT. In the extra session, Weerhiem scored a quick takedown to earn the title.

TEAM SCORES — Southern Oregon 164, Great Falls 137.5, Montana State-Northern 106.5, Menlo College 84, Wayland Baptist 66.5, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical 53.5.

CHAMPIONSHIP FINALS

125 — Mitchell Lofstedt, SOU, pinned Sean Silva, ER, 4:52; 133 — Angel Garcia, MC, dec. Miguel Baltazar, SOU, 8-3; 141 — Anthony Weerhiem, MSN, dec. Anthony Varnell, GF, 5-3 OT; 149 — Mike Vassar, GF, dec. Jimmy Eggemeyer, SOU, 3-2; 157 — Dalton Urrutia, SOU, dec. Mickey Cheff, MSN, 7-5.

165 — Noah Hatton, GF, major dec. Brian Lemmon, SOU, 12-2; 174 — Brock Gutches, SOU, pinned Jared Miller, MSN, 2:15; 184 — Austin Vanderford, SOU, dec. Derek Rottenberg, SOU, 8-3; 197 — Kamron Jackson, GF, dec. Levi Morgan, GF, 13-8; 285 — Leonard Romero, MC, dec. Scott Brasil, MC, 4-2.

THIRD-PLACE FINALS

125 — Danny Luttrell, GF, dec. Drake Medeiros, MC, 3-1; 133 — Cameron Neiss, MSN, major dec. Scott Schlosser, GF, 8-0; 141 — Myles Mazurkiewicz, GF, dec. Kyle Wirkuty, SOU, 7-3; 149 — Jesse Routsong, ER, pinned Chris Hart, WB, 4:27; 157 — David Rios, MC, pinned Ryan Leonard, GF, 2:55.

165 — Derek Mestrovich, SOU, dec. Ethan Hinebauch, MSN, 16-10; 174 — Max Payne, MSN, dec. Tyler Thomas, SOU, 13-6; 184 — Kody Reed, MSN, tech. fall William Sheppard, WB, 22-5; 197 — Shawn Michalek, ER, pinned Manuel Rocha, WB, 1:46; 285 — Bubba Owens, SOU, dec. Sears Tiernan, GF, 4-1.

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

SOU's Derek Rottenberg, left, wrestles teammate Austin Vanderford in the 184-pound final on Saturday. - Photo by Richard Balzer