Southern Oregon wrestling coach Mike Ritchey knows what it's like to take a title contender to the NAIA National Championships. And though the 2013-14 Raiders are light on experience and not viewed as a legitimate threat to heavy favorite and two-time defending national champion Grand View (Iowa), Ritchey believes he may have another squad capable of competing for the big trophy this time around.
"It depends on how much stock you put in the rankings," he said. "Either it's an opportunity or an excuse. Hopefully, we're looking at it as an opportunity."
The Raiders will try to take advantage of that opportunity today and Saturday at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka, Kan., site of the 57th annual national tournament. Action begins at 10 a.m. local time (8 a.m. Pacific). The championship matches are set to begin at 7 p.m. (5 p.m. Pacific) Saturday night and can be viewed live online for a fee — links are available at naia.org.
Southern Oregon has placed second at nationals four of the past five years but will have to exceed the expectations of the pollsters in order to make it five out of six this year. That's because the Raiders, who are ranked fourth in the nation (their highest ranking of the season), boast only four top-five wrestlers and qualified 10 of a possible 12.
Grand View is a safe bet to capture its third consecutive national title because it has seven wrestlers ranked either first or second and qualified 12, while second-ranked Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) has two top-ranked wrestlers. Third-ranked MSU-Northern has two top-ranked wrestlers and five ranked in the top four.
So what makes Ritchey believe SOU can compete for the big prize? In short, competition. The Raiders see more quality opponents during the regular season than most other NAIA squads, the 19th-year coach points out, so comparing the records at face value is a waste of time.
"I think anybody ranked in the top five for us has a chance," he said. "It is a young group, but a lot of them have wrestled in big tournaments before. It's something that you just try to reassure them. Most of these guys (at nationals) have outstanding records, but they don't have to see the (Division 1) wrestlers that we do. So you've got to get them over that fear. Guys that have been here before, they understand that records don't really mean anything. If you got through our region then you've got a pretty good chance at becoming an All-American."
Southern Oregon, which is after its first national title since 2001, is led by 174-pound juggernaut Brock Gutches, a junior who will be seeking his third straight national title. That would tie Gutches with Mitchell Lofstedt for the most in program history — Lofstedt notched No. 3 as a senior last season.
Gutches (31-3), a Crater High graduate, has dominated his NAIA competition this season and secured his third West Region title two weeks ago with his 16th pin of 2013-14. He's on the same side of the bracket as Grand View's Jimmie Schuessler (26-4), who's ranked No. 2.
"That, I think, is going to be a pretty critical match," Ritchey said.
SOU 197-pound junior Taylor Johnson (16-3) is ranked second in his weight class and should also be in the hunt for a national title Saturday. He'll have to earn it, however. That's because despite his ranking Johnson received a tough draw, with possible matchups against 10th-ranked Jacob Dempsey of Life University in the second round, fourth-ranked Jesse Hellinger of Dickinson State in the quarterfinals and third-ranked Josh Manu of Missouri Valley in the semifinals.
SOU's other top contenders are redshirt freshman Jacob Stigall, ranked fifth at 125, junior Jacob Abrams, ranked fifth at 184, and senior Tucker Van Matre, ranked seventh at 184.
Abrams (25-10) placed seventh last year, while Van Matre is back for the first time since his freshman campaign.
The Raiders also qualified 15th-ranked Trevor Hancock at 133, Johnathon Gay at 141, 12th-ranked Tyler Cowger at 149, Garrett Urrutia at 165 and 10th-ranked Clayton Burtis at 285.
As always, Ritchey expects the Raiders to be at their best at nationals, and perhaps spring some upsets. Then, who knows?
"If we have a good tournament we'll be in the trophy hunt," he said, "and if we have a great tournament we could be floating around and waiting for somebody to make a mistake. Looking at it on paper, (Grand View) has so many more high ranking guys in the tournament and a full squad of 12 firing on all cylinders. But a lot of pressure is on them. We'll see where we're at after day one and adjust our goals if we need to."
But for now, the Raiders' goal is the same one they usually have this time of year — to bring back another first-place trophy to squeeze in next to the other four they already have on display at Bob Riehm Arena.
"Obviously, we're going to have to do some upsetting to achieve our goals," Ritchie said, "but that's something that we can do."