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Districts watered down by low numbers

Amid all the triumphs and exhausting efforts put forth at the recent Southern Sky Conference district wrestling tournament, there was also some mild disappointment.

Nothing in the way of performance, mind you, but in participants.

Only 95 wrestlers competed in the 14 weight classes last Saturday at Eagle Point High, with a low of four in the 112-pound division and a full complement of 10 in only one division (145) at the five-team event.

And those numbers weren't too far off the total participants at the Class 6A Southwest Conference district last week or the Class 4A Skyline tourney last Saturday, which totaled just over 100 wrestlers.

"It's a problem throughout," said Eagle Point coach Kacey McNulty of the low turnout. "We just need to get more kids involved."

At this point, the major selling point might be that you have a better chance to compete at the state-tournament level in wrestling than just about any other sport.

The top three wrestlers at each weight from the district tournament advance to state. In the case of the 112-pound SSC division — which admittedly was sparse due to injuries and ineligibles — all four wrestlers received a bye into the semifinal round.

In that situation, a wrestler needed to win just one match in order to advance to the state tournament.

That, in itself, is disappointing because no one should be able to advance simply by default.

"That's a sad thing," says Crater coach Greg Haga. "That's something as a conference we're going to need to look at this spring. We need to do something that will increase those numbers and give more kids opportunities."

In reality, you'd be hard-pressed to find a wrestler who would want to move on that way, either. These are kids who work hard and show the kind of dedication rarely duplicated by their peers. Wrestlers earn victories, there's just no other way around it.

So that's why Haga says he'll be asking the conference to allow more than two wrestlers per team to compete at a given weight in future district tournaments.

It's something that Haga says has already been done at the lower levels, with Class 3A power Nyssa and its cohorts enjoying such an opportunity in the past.

"What you do is you put more kids in the bracket," says Haga, "and instead of saying, 'Sorry son, you don't get to qualify because we already have two kids at 130 and 135 and you probably don't want to go to 140.' This is an opportunity for at least that kid to go into the bracket and provide a little more depth and maybe even have a chance."

After all, the days of the wrestling-rich Southern Oregon Conference are over. Reclassification has watered down its replacements: the SWC and Southern Sky.

"It definitely isn't the old SOC," says Haga. "Likewise, I don't think the 6A conference is either. The challenge is different now."

Having to compete with the likes of 6A powers Roseburg and Grants Pass and the Medford schools (North and South) naturally forces wrestlers to rise to the challenge a little bit better and prepares them more for the state level.

For those who might be concerned over whether that would punish schools who don't have the rich wrestling backgrounds like at Crater and Eagle Point, Haga doesn't see that happening.

"We've been pretty deep at weights like heavyweight before," says the 20th-year coach, "but we've never had three-deep to where you could send those three to state."

And even if they were?

"My whole premise behind that is if you can't beat our No. 3 guy, you're not going to beat our No. 2 guy," he says.

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ANOTHER ISSUE HAGA wants the Southern Sky Conference to address is the possibility of adding more three-way duals in the future.

Besides potentially helping with travel costs, such a move would open up more dates for other duals and possibly allow for a greater entertainment experience for wrestling fans.

"Personally what it does for me is it allows us to get a dual with a North Medford and a Roseburg or someone like that," he says. "We already had a dual with Grants Pass, but now maybe we can wrestle an Ashland and Phoenix in the same dual, or an Ashland and Grants Pass."

The plan would be to allow the Crater and Eagle Point duals — which generate considerable interest throughout the Rogue Valley — to remain unchanged, but try to open up one of the 14 dates the OSAA allows for competition.

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ONE POSITIVE IN THE SSC is that the majority of placers coming from the district are underclassmen.

Of the 42 state qualifiers on Saturday, only 13 were seniors. The junior class had the most qualifiers with 16, followed by the freshman (7) and sophomore (6) classes.

Only 20 seniors placed at the district overall, led by five from Eagle Point. The senior class for the Eagles, interestingly, won the state title when they were eighth graders.

"I think we placed 26 out of 27, and of that only had four seniors," says Haga. "That's another indication of the cycle we're in. Klamath Union had three seniors, Ashland had three and we had four. That's not a lot. You're looking at the majority of those kids coming back. Anytime you see that, that's good for the future."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com