Peaking at the right time has been a hallmark of the Southern Oregon University men's wrestling team under head coach Mike Ritchey. Relative to where the Raiders were a couple months ago, it's safe to say they're doing it again heading into this weekend's NAIA Championships.
The 60th annual tournament begins at 10 a.m. Central Time today with the rounds of 32 at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka, Kan. The first day will end with quarterfinals at approximately 6:30 p.m., and Saturday's action includes 10 a.m. semifinals and championships rounds at 7 p.m.
After rallying with five straight dual wins to finish with a 9-7 record, the 10th-ranked Raiders executed an upset at the West Group Qualifier and ran away with their seventh regional championship in nine years.
To compete in the team standings at the national tournament, though, they'll have to overcome a numbers game that is stacked against them: They did not receive any individual at-large bids — all eight wrestlers in the traveling party qualified automatically by placing top-three at regionals — so six other teams will have more potential point-scorers. Five-time defending champion Grand View (Iowa) and second-ranked Indiana Tech are bringing 12 wrestlers each.
Among SOU's representative are three returning All-Americans — second-ranked Tyler Cowger (149 pounds), third-ranked Hunter Hodges (157), and Casey Coulter (133). Tanner Fischer, No. 11 at 197 pounds, is the other top-16 wrestler in his class.
SOU also brought eight individuals last year and finished 10th in the team standings. In the seven-year stretch preceding 2016, the Raiders were runners-up five times.
The field includes 240 wrestlers with at least 20 in each weight class and as many as 27 at 125, 149 and 165 pounds. To become an All-American, one must place in the top-eight in his bracket. Cowger, a runner-up last season, is vying to become the seventh four-time All-American in SOU history.
SOU Tournament History:
• The Raiders have claimed three team titles – in 1978, 1983 and 2001. They've only finished outside the top-10 in the team standings six times since 1971.
• SOU's 36 individual titles are the most in tournament history among active NAIA programs. After going without a title from 2005-08, the Raiders have won 13 since – most recently by Taylor Johnson and four-time champion Brock Gutches in 2015.
• Ritchey has twice been named the NAIA Coach of the Year – in 2001 when the Raiders won the team title, and in 2013 when they won four individual titles and placed second.
Returning Headliners: Seven individuals who captured championships last year are back — Indiana Tech's Mitch Pawlak (who won at 125 and is now at 133), Grand View's Jacob Colon (133), Michael Pixley (184) and Dean Broghammer (285), Baker's Victor Hughes (149) and Warner Pacific's Blake Cooper (165). Last year, there were three returning champions.
Last Year: The Raiders were responsible for some of the biggest surprises of the 2016 tournament, where seven of their eight competitors notched wins and seven of their 17 wins on the first day were upsets of higher-ranked wrestlers. They finished 10th in the team standings with 52 points but were only separated from sixth place by 5.5 points and boasted four All-Americans — Cowger and Ryan McWatters in second place, and Coulter and Hodges in eighth.