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No. 7 Raiders have high hopes

ASHLAND — The Southern Oregon University men's wrestling team is ready for another trophy chase in 2016-17 — or, in other words, a return to normalcy.

Mike Ritchey, SOU's 22nd-year head coach, rebuilt the Raider lineup last season with underclassmen after losing eight starters and a senior class that helped to deliver one fourth-place and three second-place team finishes at the national tournament. Improbably, the Raiders still produced four NAIA All-Americans, went 11-2 in duals for their 46th straight winning season and checked in at 10th in the national team standings.

Now, though, their aspirations are back to being a little more ambitious. They'll start the season No. 7 in the polls with seven top-16 individuals and four NAIA West Region favorites: Tyler Cowger (149 pounds), Hunter Hodges (157), Andrew Orr (174) and Tanner Fischer (197).

"It's nice to have a group that's young but well-read on the wrestling mat and ready to go," Ritchey said. "It's one of those years where you feel real optimistic. We're expected to be in the trophy hunt and I think this group has the ability to do that."

HOME MAT: The Raiders have five duals scheduled to take place in Ashland — last year, due to the reconstruction of McNeal Pavilion, they had two — and four will take place in the next three weeks. At Friday's Doc Welton Classic, they'll host 12th-ranked Menlo (Calif.) at 5 p.m. and Warner Pacific at 6:30 p.m. A week from Thursday, they'll tangle at home with rival Great Falls (Mont.). And on Dec. 2, they'll meet San Francisco State for the first time in five seasons at Ashland Middle School.

LAST YEAR: After going 11-2 during dual season, the Raiders went into the West Region tournament predicted to finish fourth but stole second place (Montana State-Northern won) behind titles for Tyler Cowger, Aaron DeMay and Ryan McWatters. Eight individuals qualified for the national tournament, where Cowger and McWatters were runners-up while Casey Coulter and Hunter Hodges outdid their pre-tourney seeds by placing eighth. Cowger became the 28th three-time All-American in team history, and McWatters made the Raiders one of three teams with multiple finalists. On the first day of the tournament, seven Raiders contributed to a total of 17 wins, seven of which were upsets.