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SOU wrestling team looks to make waves at NAIA national tourney

For the eighth-ranked Southern Oregon University men's wrestling team to make its desired mark this year at the NAIA Championships, the Raiders are going to need contributions across the board from a relatively condensed group of eight individuals making the trip.

The first session, starting with the rounds of 32, will begin at 10 a.m. Central Time today at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka, Kan., and the quarterfinals are scheduled to start at approximately 6:30 p.m. The tournament concludes Saturday with the semifinals at 10 a.m. and the championship rounds at 7 p.m.

In all, 239 wrestlers representing 46 schools will compete at the 59th annual event. The final brackets were released Thursday evening by the national office. For the first time, every match will be streamed live at NAIANetwork.com until the finals, which will be carried by ESPN3.

SOU won its last team title (and third overall) in 2001, and was the runner-up last season for the fifth time in seven years. This year, the Raiders will have to produce quality to counter a numbers game that has the odds stacked against them; eight other teams, including the seven ranked ahead of them, are fielding at least 10 individuals to the championships.

Top-ranked Grand View (Iowa), with 11 qualifiers and three ranked No. 1 in their respective brackets, is the odds-on favorite to win its fifth consecutive team title, which would be a new NAIA record.

Among SOU's qualifiers, four will be competing at the tournament for the first time, while Casey Coulter (125 pounds), Tyler Cowger (149), Reed Tennyson (174) and Ryan McWatters (184) are making return trips.

To become an All-American one must place in the top-eight of a weight class. Cowger, ranked third, is SOU's only returning All-American and McWatters, also at No. 3, is the other Raider with a top-eight ranking.

SOU Tournament History:

• Among active NAIA programs, SOU's 36 all-time individual titles are the most in the country, just ahead of Montana State-Northern's 30.

• SOU's three team titles were claimed in 1978, 1983 and 2001. The Raiders have only been outside of the top-10 in the team standings six times since 1971.

• SOU head coach Mike Ritchey – a four-time All-American at 126 pounds during his wrestling days with the Raiders, one of just six wrestlers in program history to accomplish the feat – was named the NAIA Coach of the Year after winning the title in 2001 and again in 2013 when four Raiders won individual titles for a second-place team finish.

• After going without an individual champion from 2005-08, eight individuals have delivered 13 titles for the Raiders in the last seven years.

Returning Headliners: Three wrestlers in the field are back to defend their titles – Davion Caston (133) of Campbellsville (Ky.), Ricky McCarty (165) of Oklahoma City, and Gabi Musallam (285) of Missouri Valley. Every weight class includes at least one returning All-Americans, and the 197-pound bracket is expected to be the most contested with six returning All-Americans.

Last Year: The Raiders came into the 2015 championships ranked four and finished second with 109 points to Grand View's 147.5. Brock Gutches (174) won his fourth consecutive title, Taylor Johnson (197) won his first, and four other Raiders became All-Americans: second-place Dalton Urrutia (157), third-place Jacob Abrams (184), fifth-place Tyler Cowger (149) and seventh-place Garrett Urrutia (165). SOU qualified 11 individuals for the tournament and nine of them won at least one match.

AD Sayre honored

Southern Oregon University's Matt Sayre has been named one of 28 National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics' 2015-16 Under Armour AD of the Year Award winners, spanning seven divisions of collegiate athletics across the country.

Sayre, in his sixth year as SOU's athletic director, will be recognized at the NACDA's 51st annual convention on June 15 in Dallas, Texas.

The award is given to athletic directors based on their "commitment and positive contributions to student-athletes, campuses and their surrounding communities," according to the NACDA office.

In 2015, Sayre became SOU's first Cascade Conference Athletic Director of the Year since 1996 after helping every Raider program advance to postseason play for the first time in school history, introducing the first two new sports at SOU since 2000, overseeing two major facility renovation projects and helping SOU break athletics fundraising records for the third year in a row.

"Though the award goes to the guy with the title, the substance behind our success is provided by our student-athletes and their hard work, my coaches and the values they instill in their programs, the trainers and the care they provide, our Associate AD, Bobby Heiken, and his solid work on so many fronts, and our talented Sports Information Director, Josh McDermott, for publicizing it so well," Sayre said. "SOU Athletics is a great team backed by a supportive administration and caring faculty."

Sparked by the school's first national football title, Sayre led the Raiders to their highest-ever finish in the NAIA Learfield Sports Directors' Cup standings in 2015 at No. 6 — also the top finish ever by an institution representing the CCC. SOU's ascent in the national ranks directly correlates with the appointment of Sayre, who spent 18 months as the interim athletic director before taking over in earnest in May 2010. In the five years prior to him taking over, the Raiders' finishes in the Directors' Cup were 88th, 47th, 57th, 100th and 92nd; in the last five years SOU has taken 29th, 27th, 18th, 32nd and sixth.

This year, SOU is on pace for another record-breaking finish at No. 2 in the Directors' Cup standings after the fall season, and with four more winter programs currently qualified for their respective national tournaments.

Sayre's standards for Raider student-athletes in the classroom and focus on character-driven athletics also led the department to a combined grade-point average of 3.2 during the 2014-15 academic year.