The Southern Oregon wrestling program opens the 2012-13 season in a familiar position atop the NAIA poll, as the Raiders picked up 139 points to earn the title of preseason favorites for the national championship.
Southern Oregon, which began the year ranked No. 1 last season before finishing second at the NAIA Championships, began the season this week with Wednesday's annual Red & Black Intrasquad, followed by the Pacific Open on Sunday in Forest Grove.
"We have high expectations on the season," SOU head coach Mike Ritchey said. "Right now the team is focused on the national duals in Springfield, Ill., in January. That's the big date on our calendar."
Three Raiders are ranked No. 1 in their weight class, led by two-time defending national champion Mitchell Lofstedt of Roseburg at 125 pounds. Lofstedt put together a historic season as a junior in 2011-12, establishing a new program record for pins with 26 to go with a 39-2 record. He was named the Outstanding Wrestler of the National Tournament and earned the Gorrian Award, given to the wrestler with the most pins in the least amount of time.
Lofstedt will aim for his third consecutive national title and fourth All-American honor.
Brock Gutches, a sophomore, returns to defend his national title in the 174-pound bracket, while Jimmy Eggemeyer enters the season looking to win the national title at 149 after falling in the championship bout last season. Both are ranked atop their respective weight classes going into the new season.
"Rankings are rankings," Ritchey said. "The one that matters is at the end of the season."
Twelve Raiders earned spots in the preseason rankings, including newcomers Prescott Garner at 133, Johnathon Gay at 141 and Taylor Johnson at 197. Ranked returners include Miguel Baltazar at 133, Justin Eldred at 141, Dalton Urrutia at 157, Derek Mestrovich at 165, Tyler Thomas at 184 and Bubba Owens at 285.
Wednesday's annual intrasquad dual is a Southern Oregon tradition, giving newcomers the chance to compete against returners and wrestle in a realistic dual setting for the first time.
Ritchey feels confident about the state of the team entering the season. A large number of newcomers have supplemented a strong group of returners as the Raiders look to finish the year with the same ranking in which they begin.
"We've got a few guys that are working on getting into the lineup and some developmental young men, so we're excited," Ritchey said. "We brought in a huge recruiting class, and those guys have melted in well and are working real hard."
After the intrasquad and the Pacific Open, the Raiders get right at it with a home dual against eighth-ranked Great Falls on Nov. 16 before hosting the annual SOU Open that weekend. For the team, everything builds to its two national tournaments. During the season's first two months, that focus is on the NAIA-NWCA National Team Championships, to be held the second week of January.
"Once we get through that, then we'll look at the second half of the season and shoot for Des Moines, where we've got to go back into Grand View territory and try to take the title away from them if we can," Ritchey said. "Hopefully we can put together a pretty good picture for the year."