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Raiders head to Menlo for Western Qualifier

Southern Oregon University wrestling coach Mike Ritchey says he can't remember the last time his team had only one top seed going into the NAIA Western Regional Qualifier.

That will very likely be the case on Saturday, when the seventh-ranked Raiders will be at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif., for the all-day affair, which starts at 10 a.m. SOU is the third-highest ranked team in the region behind No. 4 Great Falls (Mont.) and No. 6 Montana State-Northern, which both defeated the Raiders in November duals, but Ritchey believes his team is equipped to make it a fair fight anyway.

"Statistically, we're not the top team, but anything can happen at this thing," he said. "It's usually a tournament that's won on bonus points, so hopefully we can get an extra boost there and get some good performances across the board."

The Raiders won three individual titles last year — Brock Gutches (174 pounds) and Taylor Johnson (197) will be attempting to repeat — but their string of four straight team titles was stopped by Great Falls.

Embry-Riddle (Ariz.), 12th-ranked Menlo and 13th-ranked Simpson are the other teams that make up the region. Each will bring 12 wrestlers of their choice to the tournament, and the top four in each weight class will advance to the NAIA National Championships on March 6-8 in Topeka, Kan. Nine of SOU's names didn't appear at the 2013 qualifier.

The fewer locks there are to advance out of a weight class in the region, the more that weight class fills up. The 157-pound bracket is the busiest in the West with 12 probable entrants, though most contain six to eight.

The Western Region features the NAIA's top-ranked wrestlers at 133 pounds (AJ Valles, Simpson), 165 (Eric Lopez, Menlo), 174 (Gutches, SOU) and 197 (Toby Cheff, MSU-Northern). It has second-ranked wrestlers at 125 (Danny Luttrell, Great Falls), 133 (Michael Ruiz, Great Falls), 165 (MSU-Northern) and 197 (Johnson, SOU).

"The potential is there to qualify 12 — I think all 12 of our guys are capable of wrestling at the national tournament — but we know it probably won't happen," Ritchey said. "It's a tough region to get out of, but if you can then you'll do pretty well down the road."

Gutches was the star of SOU's 8-3 regular season with a 26-3 record that consisted of 15 pins (tied for fifth in SOU history), a California Collegiate Open title, second place at the Reno Tournament of Champions and fourth at the Midlands Championships.

He has yet to lose against a non-NCAA Division I opponent.

Likewise, Johnson is 14-5 and all but one of his losses were against D1 competition. He has seven pins and has yet to face the top-ranked Cheff, as an injury kept him out of SOU's lineup in a 36-12 loss at Northern.

The Raiders will bring several others who have been successful against the region, including 133-pounder Tyler Cowger (5-1 vs. West), 133-pounder Trevor Hancock (4-1) and 125-pounder Jacob Stigall (5-2).

"We're ready to get another shot at some of these guys and see how much we've improved," Ritchey added. "We'll have to overcome some seedings but we'll have to rise to the occasion."