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SOU's Ramirez thankful to get chance to wrestle again

After so many months of uncertainty, Southern Oregon University wrestler Sienna Ramirez couldn’t help but have at least a little bit of doubt creep in.

Would her 2021 season happen, or would it look like so many other things that occurred the year before — canceled.

“At a lot of points, I know personally I felt defeated because I just wasn’t sure that we would have the opportunity to go out there,” said Ramirez, a senior from Lakewood, Washington.

But once Ramirez and the Raiders got clearance from the Oregon Health Authority last month after spending so much time in a holding pattern, the opportunity to wrestle for the first time in over a year was real. And it was the chance to finally, at long last, simply compete.

That competition came on the biggest stage the NAIA has to offer, and it was one Ramirez took full advantage of last weekend. Ramirez, already an All-American three times over even before she and her SOU teammates made the trip to North Dakota last week, ran the table and did what no other Raider woman has ever done — won an individual national title.

“We just wanted to go in and have fun and make the best of the experience regardless of the outcome,” said Ramirez, who was named the Cascade Conference’s Women’s Wrestler of the Year on Friday. “Like our coach said, ‘It’s just wrestling — have fun.’”

Oh, she had fun.

It was a record-setting achievement that Ramirez, competing in the 155-pound weight class, didn’t even realize she had accomplished until her coaches told her later in the night last Saturday.

“It didn’t sink in until a little while afterward when my coach mentioned it, and I was like, ‘I did do that, huh?’” Ramirez quipped. “I don’t know It feels normal, I feel OK. But it is kind of cool to think that I made an imprint on the program to some degree and that it will be there for a while.”

Even before she stepped foot onto the mat for the first time at nationals, Ramirez’s résumé was amongst the best in SOU history. The national title only added to it now.

Ramirez can now say that she’s a four-time All-American on top of the recent honors handed out by the Cascade Conference. She’s SOU’s most-accomplished wrestler in terms of wins, with a school-record 84-25 career mark.

But it was the past 12 months that challenged Ramirez as much as any.

Mainly because she couldn’t actually wrestle at all due to COVID-19 restrictions handed down by OHA and Gov. Kate Brown’s office, preparing for any kind of season SOU would end up having was all the more difficult.

Ramirez and the rest of the Raiders entered the national tournament with only two weeks worth of practices after OHA’s revised guidelines allowed for small-college indoor sports to allow full-contact workouts and subsequent competition.

Before that point, Ramirez tried to equate every aspect of her training to how it would apply to her wrestling activities. Even though the actual wrestling part wasn’t allowed, the preparation to have her as ready as she could be was what she controlled.

“I put in those workouts and made it a mental thing,” Ramirez recalled. “If I was going to do a sprint, it was going to be a 30-second sprint for a shot and transitioning those non-wrestling-related workouts and at least applying it in some way. When we did get the clearance to practice, it was about making the best opportunity we could in the mat room and have really good practices focusing on what we could.”

That meant the national stage was the first time Ramirez would compete in over a year after last year’s NAIA Invitational was canceled during the early weeks of the pandemic last spring.

The Raiders took a simple mindset into their trip to North Dakota this year: While others might put all the pressure on this national tournament, don’t consider SOU as one of those schools. They were going to the NAIA Invite to compete first and foremost, and the results would come as a byproduct of it.

“We don’t put too much emphasis on the national tournament. It’s just another set of matches,” SOU head coach Joel Gibson said. “We don’t want to make it something that it’s not. Some people put a little too much on the national tournament and make the moment a little bit more than it should be.”

“The expectations were high because we know what we have on this team, we know how we stack up against the rest of the competition, too,” Gibson continued. “Of course we have very high expectations, but again, we don’t put too much emphasis on that because, at the end of the day, it’s only a handful of wrestling matches. We try to simplify it and I think that makes things a little bit easier.”

Ramirez entered as the No. 8 seed in the 155-pound bracket, meaning her road to even competing for the national title was going to be a tough task.

While a victorious one, her first day at nationals was certainly a case where she had to shake off the rust, the effects of not competitively wrestling for over a year still there. It started to change in her last match of the day, when Ramirez was able to pick up a win via pinfall over the No. 1 seed in the 155-pound bracket, Oklahoma City’s Cierra Foster.

The second day is when both wrestler and coach alike felt the talented senior was truly able to settle in. It had to do with some wrestling actually happening the day before, but also simply down to feeling more comfortable after such a long layoff.

Arguably the closest match she had came in the semifinals against Kendra Thompson of Campbellsville (Ky.), an 8-6 decision. Ramirez admitted she didn’t get a good warmup prior to the semifinal round.

There were no such issues in the final later in the day.

It was a convincing 10-0 win via technical fall over No. 2-seeded Morgan Mayginnes of Baker (Kan.) in which Ramirez was in control from start to finish.

“I think I felt more comfortable going into the final because my team and my coaches, they all just believed in me so much. Like, they obviously see something, so why can’t I just do that myself,” Ramirez said.

What was Ramirez’s mindset going into the championship match?

“Just be really offensive,” she said. “I wanted to put the pressure on her, not let her tie me up or anything, so I think I did that well. After it was 8-0, I knew it was mine and it wasn’t going to slip away.”

Added Gibson: “I would think she was more relaxed and a lot more confident. The first day of the tournament and the semifinal match, I think the stress levels were pretty high, but once the semifinal match was over I think she was rolling at that point in time.”

Just as enjoyable as Ramirez’s run to the title was enjoying the success at nationals alongside her teammates.

The Raiders finished fifth in the team standings — which was quite the achievement considering SOU was the only full team that took part in the tournament that hadn’t had any competitive meets during the regular season.

“It was really fulfilling knowing everything we went through this season,” Ramirez said. “This was our first tournament and seeing everybody together again, it was really just a huge morale boost.”

The wait was worth it, and the celebration along the way last weekend in North Dakota was most definitely something they don’t regret one bit.

“That’s exactly why we were so supportive of each other because of that long wait,” Ramirez said. “We’d been waiting for so long, and that’s why making the best of this opportunity was such an emphasis for us.”

So much so that it took two days for her voice to come back because she was cheering on her teammates just that much.

It was all worth it just to be back on the mat once again.

“We’ve all had raspy voices because we were screaming so loud for each other. I fed off of that the entire tournament, too,” Ramirez said with a laugh. “It was really fulfilling knowing everything we went through this season.”

Reach Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

Southern Oregon University wrestler Sienna Ramirez celebrates after winning the national title in the 155-pound weight class at the NAIA National Invitational last Saturday night in Jamestown, North Dakota. (Photo courtesy of SOU Sports Information)