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Cowger, McWatters lead four SOU All-Americans

TOPEKA, Kan. — Lacking the experience and quantity of big names and high seeds that it has regularly taken to the NAIA Championships, the Southern Oregon University men's wrestling team needed to scratch and claw its way into relevance at this year's tournament and did just that on Friday.

Four Raiders have clinched top-eight finishes and All-American status: unranked Casey Coulter (125 pounds), second-seeded Tyler Cowger (149), third-seeded Ryan McWatters (184) and 13th-ranked Hunter Hodges (157).

Cowger and McWatters kept their national title hopes alive by reaching the semifinals, while Coulter and Hodges can still place anywhere from third to eighth.

The eighth-ranked Raiders are seventh in the team standings with 38 points, and it took some of the biggest surprises of the tournament to get there.

Seven of SOU's eight wrestlers contributed to 17 wins for the team. Thirteen of those 17 were by decision, and seven were upsets of higher-ranked wrestlers. Coulter, Hodges and Tanner Fischer (197) were responsible for two upsets apiece, and Coulter generated early shockwaves by knocking off the top-ranked 125-pounder in the second round.

"We had a good day and we have high expectations for the remaining wrestlers," 21st-year head coach Mike Ritchey said. "We lost a couple close ones but won a lot of tight matches. But we're young and excited about the future."

Top-ranked Grand View (Iowa) is well on its way to a record fifth straight team title with 117.5 points to second-place Montana State-Northern's 74.

Cowger, who placed fifth the last two years, became the 28th three-time All-American in SOU history and the first at 149 pounds. The stingy junior outscored his three opponents 15-2, starting with a 9-0 major decision over Indiana Tech's Justin Atkinson, then defeating Brewton-Parker's Adrain Gomez (2-0) and Embry-Riddle's Anton King (4-2) by decision in the second round and quarterfinals.

He's the highest remaining seed in the championship bracket and has a semifinal date with sixth-seeded Jaedin Sklapsky of Campbellsville (Ky.).

After receiving a first-round bye, McWatters needed two wins to set up today's 184 semifinal against second-seeded LJ Grayson of Indiana Tech and become an All-American for the first time. The dominant senior, who just missed placing a year ago, claimed his 27th and 28th victories of the season by pulling out two decisions: 7-4 over Wayland Baptist's Michael Napier and 6-5 over Dickinson State's sixth-ranked John Solano in the quarterfinals.

Coulter — who needed a wild-card bid just to get into the tournament — started with a second-period pin of Jamestown's Jesse Barajas. Then he matched up with top-ranked Adrian Gaines of Oklahoma City, who had yet to lose to an NAIA wrestler this season, and fought back and forth for a 12-10 win. He was knocked out of the championship bracket by Midland's Hugo Perez in the quarterfinals, 12-3, but kept his season alive by following the loss with another upset - 8-7 over 11th-ranked Keegan Hessler of Morningside.

Hodges was pinned at the outset by top-seeded 157-pounder Tanner Werner of Grand View in 4:34. But the redshirt-sophomore responded by ticking off three straight consolation wins: 7-2 over Hannibal-LaGrange's Rowdy Miller, 11-4 over seventh-ranked Andrew Simmons of Missouri Valley and 16-6 over fifth-ranked JR Lule of Concordia (Neb.).

Ninth-ranked Aaron DeMay, a redshirt-junior, nearly joined Hodges as an All-American at 157. He was pinned in the first round by Doane's Martin Phillips but came back with victories by decision against Embry-Riddle's Brenn Schiess (15-10) and Simpson's Richard Ortiz (3-2). His run was stopped by eighth-ranked Victor Thomas of Wayland Baptist, who won by fall in 6:44.

With six returning All-Americans, the 197-pound bracket was the hardest to break into but 15th-ranked Tanner Fischer was just a win short of placing. Fischer, a freshman, dropped his first-round match, 4-2, to seventh-ranked Hudson Buck of Dickinson State before winning three straight tightly-contested consolation bouts. He started with a 4-3 decision against Wayland Baptist's David Willoughby, then registered consecutive upsets — 11-7 over No. 8 Josh Chiles of Williams Baptist and 2-0 over No. 9 Nate Knauf of Campbellsvielle. Doane's Chandler Knight then pinned Fischer in 45 seconds.

Track and Field

NAIA INDOOR: At Johnson City, Tenn., Southern Oregon sprinters Matt East and Julius Shellmire were stopped short of the finals at the NAIA Indoor Track & Field Championships.

Racing in both the 60- and 200-meter prelims as SOU's first ever representatives in the events at the Indoor, East and Shellmire needed to finish in the top eight to advance.

In the 60, East placed 15th of 28 in 6.91 seconds and Shellmire was 25th in 6.97.

In the 200, East placed 14th of 18 in 22.16 seconds and Shellmire was 18th in 22.43.

SOU's women's distance medley relay team will represent the Raiders today. It qualified with the fifth-fastest time on Thursday.