Spectators at last Saturday’s wrestling districts championship round may have noticed a great deal of Lions’ blue and yellow on the mat.
On Fri. and Sat., Feb. 21-22 Cottage Grove High School hosted the OSAA Special District 3 wrestling tournament and, after two days of competition, Cottage Grove could begin tallying their accolades.
10 of the 12 Lions entered in the tournament fought their way to the top-six podium in their respective weight classes. Six wrestlers qualified for this weekend’s state tournament. Five made it to the district championship match and three were crowned district champions.
“This is the culmination of all the blood, sweat, tears and hard work they put in,” said head wrestling coach Rich Herzog.
As a coach, Herzog emphasizes that wrestling is a sport about discipline and hard work. A high school wrestler gets out of it what they put in.
“That piggy bank that they’ve been putting into all season, this is the tournament where you make your withdrawals. We could see that work paying off in the third round conditioning where we were outwrestling people.”
In a bracket-style tournament such as this — where an athlete must compete multiple times over a two-day period — wrestling skill and strength are key, but endurance and an ability to maintain focus is often the difference between earning a place at state or the end of an individual season.
For four Cottage Grove wrestlers — Malaky Barr (fifth place at 160 pounds), Walker Humphrey (sixth at 182), Crimson Tadlock (sixth at 195) and Levi Boitz (fifth at 182) — their individual seasons may have ended last weekend, failing to secure a place at state, but they wrestled well enough to end atop the district podium.
“We were wrestling and wrestling well. Pretty proud of what the kids did. Taking 12 and placing 10 is a pretty good day,” Herzog said.
The other six placers — Logan Lowrey (fourth at 138), Fernando Soto-Cruz (second at 138), Jacob Dunn (first at 152), Drew Swenson (first at 170), Cobie Simpson (first at 195) and Trace Nelson (second at 220) — will all be headed to the Feb. 28-29 OSAA state wrestling tournament to be held at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland.
Naturally, the highlight of Saturday’s finals were the three Lions district championships: Dunn, Swenson and Simpson. Dunn and Swenson entered the tournament as the number-one seeds in their respective weight classes, with a combined 52-6 record in the 2019-20 season, and didn’t disappoint, winning all of their matches by fall or technical fall.
The fourth-seeded Simpson winning the 195-pound bracket, on the other hand, was something of a surprise.
“To say it was unexpected is an understatement,” said assistant coach Christina Kent.
Taking nothing away from Simpson’s wrestling talent, he simply hadn’t wrestled for years until coming back to the sport in his senior year. By the end of the day on Saturday, he had defeated the top two seeds in his bracket and was named district champion.
“Cobie showed up to wrestle,” Herzog said. “He’s had his challenges and he had to have a quick learning season, having taken so many years off. It was just sheer determination. He refused to lose.”
Not only did Simpson surprise the field with his win, but he impressed with the fashion in which he won, earning victory in each match by fall, the longest of which — the championship round against Henley’s Matthew McCoy — took all of one minute and 12 seconds.
“He was not gonna get beat at that tournament and when he stepped on the mat, he showed it. He got after those guys,” Herzog said. “In the finals, I got pretty nervous because you could see some of the green coming out of him, but he was determined that he was gonna pin that guy and he did. He’s probably the strongest one on the team.”
In spite of the individual accomplishments of last week, Herzog insists on running his wrestling squad as a team sport and, even though not every wrestler earned a spot at state, it will be all hands on deck in helping the ‘staters’ get prepared.
“Even now, not all the boys are going to state, but their job now is to get the ‘staters’ ready to go, get them in peak performance,” Herzog said.
As of this time next week, the wrestling season will have concluded after the state tournament wraps up. But, with matches still left to wrestle, Herzog and his coaching staff have already keyed in on the successes of their team’s 2019-20 season, both on the mat and beyond.
“The growth of all the kids - not just the ‘staters’ - from the start of the season to where they’re at now, they’ll remember this season their whole lives,” Herzog said. “What they went through to get where they are, no other sport goes through that grind like we do. The challenges, the bumps, the bruises, the sore, the tired, then you gotta pick yourself up and go do it some more.”