ASHLAND — The umbrella under which it operates has changed, but the Southern Oregon University men's wrestling team is hoping for a lot of the same Saturday as the postseason begins.
Ashland High's Mountain Avenue Gym will be the site of the first-ever Cascade Collegiate Conference Wrestling Championships presented by U.S. Bank, which boasts one of the most lauded fields in the country with 41 nationally-ranked individuals and five teams in the NAIA Top 20 poll. It includes the same eight teams that previously made up the NAIA West Regional Qualifier Tournament: No. 6 Providence (Mont.), No. 7 Menlo (Calif.), No. 10 SOU, No. 13 Montana State-Northern, No. 18 Embry-Riddle (Ariz.), Eastern Oregon, Simpson (Calif.) and Warner Pacific.
The Raiders won seven of the last nine regional championships, including the 2017 title, before the CCC took over the operation prior to this season. It was their 14th regional title since Mike Ritchey became the head coach in 1995. They last hosted in 2012.
Conference formats have taken over across the NAIA, in large part to balance the process of qualifying for the national tournaments. This year, automatic bids are allotted to each conference based on how many top-20 ranked individuals are in each weight class; for example, because the CCC has five ranked wrestlers at 157 pounds, the top-five placers in that class will receive automatic bids. The conference's coaches will collectively determine three additional wild-card selections from the CCC following the tournament, and will be allowed to submit 15 names to the NAIA office for at-large consideration.
SOU features one of the most seasoned lineups in the tournament, with five of its 12 individuals making their third postseason appearances. Devin Poppen, the No. 4-ranked 141-pounder in the NAIA, was the team's lone regional champion last year, though Hunter Hodges (157) and Tanner Fischer (197) — both ranked No. 3 — were 2017 regional finalists and are SOU's reigning NAIA All-Americans. Poppen and Fischer are both top seeds; Fischer and Hodges both have potential championship rematches looming.
The tournament features nine returning All-Americans in total, including three at 157 pounds with Hodges, Embry-Riddle's James Williams and MSU-Northern's Brandon Weber, the defending regional and national champion. The bracket's top seed, Eastern Oregon's Drake Randall, was a redshirt last year.
The top three placers in each bracket will be considered all-conference. The prelims will begin on three mats at 9 a.m., the semifinals are scheduled for 2 p.m., fifth-place matches start at 4 p.m., and first- and third-place matches will take place simultaneously starting at 5 p.m.
CCC TEAM RANKINGS (released Feb. 5): 1. Menlo (174 points), 2. Providence (165), 3. Southern Oregon (152), 4. Embry-Riddle (135), 5. Montana State-Northern (130), 6. Eastern Oregon (80), 7. Warner Pacific (54), 8. Simpson.
LIVE STREAMING: Purchase of a $10 tournament pass at souraiders.com/live will give viewers access to all five streams throughout the day: Mats 1, 2 and 3 during the first session, and 1st- and 3rd-place Mats during the second session. Fans can check which mats individual wrestlers will be competing on at the "Live Results" link throughout the day.
COMING UP: On March 2-3, SOU will travel to Des Moines, Iowa, seeking its 10th consecutive top-10 finish after taking fifth in the team standings last year. The Raiders have qualified eight individuals for the national tournament each of the last two seasons, after qualifying 11 each of the two preceding seasons.