MILTON-FREEWATER - Mac-Hi may not have a great record on the mats - its 3-10 dual-meet record doesn't leap off the page - but the Pioneers' season has been marred by forfeit after forfeit thanks to sickness and injuries.
But that doesn't bother Mac-Hi wrestling coach Beau Chester, whose team is preparing 13 wrestlers to compete in seven weight classes at the Special District 2 Tournament Friday and Saturday at Crook County High School in Prineville, Ore.
"I told the kids I'd rather have these 13 kids that we have than 30 kids," Chester said, "because they're all hard workers and they have the mind set that, ‘Hey, we're going to get it done.' So it's been a fun year."
Looking at the numbers, it's easy to see why Chester is excited about Mac-Hi's chances of getting wrestlers to the state championship. Of 13 wrestlers, eight have made it to state previously, and the Pioneers, although sporting a poor duals record, have dominated their opposition.
There's no better example of that domination than Feb. 3, when, despite forfeiting five of 14 categories, the Pioneers defeated La Grande, 46-30.
Mac-Hi is sending two wrestlers for each class, from 126 pounds to 170, except for 152 where they have just one going.
Although one wrestler is technically considered junior varsity, each has a chance to make it to state. The top four finishers from the district tournament will make the trip to the Oregon State Championship at the Portland Memorial Coliseum Feb. 24-25.
Mac-Hi wrestlers include: 126 pounds, Chandler Fortune and Cody Harmon; 132, Tavis Hodgen and Sergio Alvarez; 138, Blake Yensen and Sage Pryhorocki; 145, Patrick Sheets and Dustin Freemantle; 152, Ryan Bullock; 160, Fancisco "Pancho" Saldana and Brayden Moller; and 170, Taylor Hodgen and Beau Birdwell.
Bullock, a senior who finished third at state as a junior and fourth his sophomore and freshman seasons, is the most highly regarded Pioneer. In the most recent Oregon Wrestling Forums rankings, Bullock was ranked No. 1 out of Class 4A wrestlers at 152 pounds. He has a career record of 105-12 and a perfect season record at 25-0. Of his 25 wins this season, 23 were either technical falls (when a wrestler outscores his opponent by 15 or more points) or pins.
"Ryan's probably had one of the best wrestling years of anyone who's ever come through Mac-Hi," Chester said. "He should be one of the first seeds at state. I don't even think he's been taken down this year."
Bullock hasn't been wrestling slouches either. At the Bank of Eastern Oregon invite on Feb. 4 in Heppner, Ore., he pinned the reigning Class 1A-2A state champion, Jesus Retano.
"He (Bullock) has faced some good kids, but he's made them look not very good compared to him," Chester said. "He's just stepped it up all year long. I don't think it really matters to him this year who they (other wrestlers) are - he's just kind of run through everybody."
Saldana (who has wrestled at 170 at times this year) and Moller, despite wrestling in the same class, are both ranked by the OWF forums; Saldana at No. 5 and Moller at No. 7.
Saldana, a senior, is 31-2 on the season and carries a victory over Washington state Class 1B champ Tory Knebel of Pomeroy. He placed sixth last season at state.
"I personally believe that Pancho, just like Ryan does, has a shot to win the state title too," Chester said. "Pancho is an absolute athlete and a positive grinder."
Saldana has only been wrestling for three years, but uses his raw strength to overpower opponents, Chester said.
"He is the best wrestler I have ever seen in my life for someone as new to wrestling as he is," Chester said of Saldana, who he estimated could bench 325 pounds. "He's just a grinder, he refuses to lose. The other asset he has is he is the strongest kid I have seen - he is super, super strong.
Junior Moller has been a significant contributor for the Pioneers and, despite technically being a JV wrestler for the tournament, Chester has high expectations for him.
"Our expectation for him is to be in the finals at regionals and, if he has a good day, he could be in the finals at state too," Chester said. "Hopefully, we can get him in a really high place at state this year so next year he can focus on winning it all."
Moller went to state last season, but did not place.
Patrick Sheets is making a return from a shoulder injury suffered before the district tournament last season, which sidelined him until the Pioneers' match with Ontario Jan. 26. In his return, Sheets defeated Evan Evlebach 11-5, but not before Evlebach keyed in on the damaged shoulder and caused him enough pain he was unable to return for a second match against Riverside.
Since then, however, Chester said Sheets' shoulder has been improving and he has been learning to manage the pain.
"Really good, really good," Chester said of Sheets' right shoulder. "Every week he's been back he's been getting more and more comfortable. He's been getting used to dealing with a little pain and trusting his shoulder and concentrating on wrestling, and he's been doing a good job of that."
Despite the injury and an abbreviated regular season, Chester was confident Sheets could succeed at the district tournament.
"He definitely has a great shot," Chester said. "He's the type of kid that can either be in third place or in the finals match. He always steps up in big tournaments. One hundred, forty-five is a tough weight class, but he's the type of kid who can do that."
Sheets took fourth at the Bank of Eastern Oregon invite.
Brothers Tavis and Taylor Hodgen both made it to state last year.
Taylor, a senior at 170, is also coming off an injury, a broken foot, and made his season debut at the Jan. 26 meet against Ontario as well. Wrestling up a class, at 195, Taylor defeated both of his opponents.
Sophomores Blake Yensen and Beau Birdwell are wildcards. Both are outside shots to make state, but a trip to Portland would be eye-opening for them, Chester said.
"With the young kids, just getting them to the state tournament is a big deal," Chester said. "They get a kind of wide-eyed look on their faces, so getting them to state their first years is a big deal so their junior and senior years they can just focus on wrestling."
Weigh-ins are scheduled for Friday at 2 p.m.; wrestling starts at 4 p.m. in Prineville. Brackets are to be released tonight or Friday morning.
Other prep wrestling
Wa-Hi's Anthony Stalder and Luis Santana made it to the State Championship to be held today through Saturday at the Tacoma Dome.
Stalder (138 pounds) went 3-0 at the regional tournament to take the region's first seed to the State bracket.
At 195, Santana took a 6-2 decision from his first opponent and pinned his second before falling to Central Valley's Kolton Cole in the class championship, 5-3.
"You always hope for more, but we're happy to make the trip," Wa-Hi coach Clayton Hudiberg said after the regionals. "We'll now focus on those two (wrestlers). We hope they have good performances."
For Pomeroy, Senior Tory Knebel continued his domination at the 170 class, pinning two and taking a match by decision, 8-0, en route to a regional championship. He highlights a six-man contingent headed to state including Austin Reisdorph at 195, Wyatt Jenkins at 160, Jacob Moore at 145, Ryan Smith at 152 and Mike Wymore at 220.
Jenkins and Reisdorph are not new to state competition. Jenkins finished second at State last season, while Reisdorph took third.
The Pirates look to improve upon a fourth-place team finish at State last season, when they only brough four wrestlers.
Wrestling begins Friday at the Tacoma Dome.