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Crook County looks to avenge last year's one half point loss to the Sweet Home Huskies

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Jaxson Rhoden works to take down Kyle Knudtson during a drill at practice earlier this week. Both Rhoden and Knudtson are expected to place at state this year for the Cowboys, who look to earn another state championship.The Crook County Cowboy wrestling team has just one goal for the upcoming season — avenge last year's half-point loss to Sweet Home at the state tournament and bring another state championship back to Prineville.

After winning four consecutive state titles, the Cowboys came up just short a year ago, and head coach Jake Huffman makes it clear that the team is fired up to avenge that loss.

"I think that if we do things right and make the adjustments that we said we were going to make at the end of last year and stick to the plan, then I think that we have a great team and a great chance to win a state title," he said. "That's our expectation. If you don't expect to win a state championship every year with your team — especially if you are here in Crook County where we have the support that we do and the youth program that we do — then if your goal is not to win a state championship every year, you shouldn't be coaching or you shouldn't be part of the program. We want to be the gold standard every year. That's what we are always striving for."

Huffman was quick to point out that the goal of winning a state championship is the same goal that the team had last year and the year before, and the year before that.

"I know it doesn't always work out that way, but you definitely set yourself on a course to get there, that's for sure," he added.

The Cowboys lost some points from a year ago to graduation, most notably from Cade Woodward, who won the state championship at 195. However, the team has a solid nucleus of returning state placers and qualifiers. Sophomore Hunter Mode placed second at 106 a year ago, while fellow sophomore Tannon Joiner also qualified for state at 106.

Junior Jesse Gore just missed placing at state last year at 113 pounds after placing at 106 his freshman year.

Senior Pacer Quire, who was third at 120 pounds a year ago, returns as does sophomore Zachary Mauras, who was sixth at the same weight.

Senior Cole Morgan, who was fifth a year ago at 126, also returns as does senior Tyler Fioravanti, who finished fourth at 132 pounds. Junior Diego Smith also qualified for state at 132 pounds a year ago.

In the middle weights, junior Colton Burkhardt, who wrestled 152 pounds a year ago, returns with state tournament experience, while sophomore Kyle Knudtson, who was sixth at 160 pounds a year ago, also returns.

Jaxson Rhoden — who moved up to 182 from 170 pounds at district a year ago and then surprised everyone with a third-place finish at state — also returns along with 220-pound junior Mario Hanson and heavyweight Caleb Parrott, LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Pacer Quire takes down Tyler Fioravanti during a drill at a recent practice. Both Quire and Fioravanti have state tournament experience.who was third at state a year ago.

All three are juniors this year.

"We lost some points for sure, but I think that we have points coming in, and we have guys that either didn't qualify or didn't place last year that I think will be knocking on the door this year," Huffman said. "We've got a great chance to qualify over 20 kids for state, so it's just a really exciting year with a lot of positive things to start that we are just hoping to build on."

Huffman added that this year's team is working as hard or harder than any team he has coached at CCHS.

"We've got good kids in here that do the right things off the mat and want to please and love wrestling," he said. "That's what it's all about. It's really hard to be good if you don't love wrestling because it's such a difficult sport and it demands so much time and effort."

The Cowboys have made several changes to the way they run practice this year, and Huffman expects that to be readily apparent to spectators when they watch the Cowboys compete.

"When you continue to win, you get that old adage that 'if it ain't broke don't fix it'" he said. "But if you are not willing to improvise and adapt then you have to be willing to lose to somebody that is willing to do that. So we took a really critical look at what we were doing, and we all sat down as coaches and came up with a few key things that we wanted to change. We are doing that now, and we like what we see."

Huffman noted that the year got off to a great start with the annual Blue and Gold scrimmage, and the team is eager to get on the mat against some other schools.

"It was the best Blue and Gold to date in terms of fund raising that we have ever had," he said. "That speaks volumes for the amount of support that we have. We are just so flattered every year, and we are so blessed to have the support that we do."

The team doesn't have long to wait before they can showcase what they are capable of doing.

The season opens on Saturday as the varsity team travels to Cascade for the Cascade Invitational, while the rest of the Cowboy team will compete at the Central Oregon Officials Tournament, which will be held at Summit High School in Bend.

"The goal is to win every tournament," Huffman said. "It's not as important this early in the season because we don't have guys all in the right weight classes and we have some guys not wrestling this week, but yes, the goal is to win it. More than that is to gather information on how we compare to other teams and to take that back and continue to build."

He added that the Central Oregon Officials Tournament is at least as important to the coaching staff as the Cascade Invitational.

"The goal is the same," Huffman said. "Those guys that we are sending there are just as important as the guys that we are sending to Cascade. In fact that second wave, I guess you would call them soldiers — those guys at the state tournaments, that's what sets you apart between being champ and a runner up. We are going to go to Summit and try to win it and try to put on our best performance and do the best we can and really worry about the process more than about the product."

He added that the team could go back to the way they did things a year ago and win a lot of matches this weekend, but the plan is to stick with the changes that the coaching staff has made.

"Last year, we worried too much about managing a match," he said. "We certainly want to do that, but the best way to manage a match is to score 100 points, so we want to just let it fly. We want to be fearless this year. We want to move forward and wrack up points. That's what puts people in the seats. Seeing people scoring 20 or 30 points, pinning people, fighting every position, winning in overtime. That's what people like to see. That's what makes it exciting, and I expect nothing less."

The Cowboys have a good slate of home events this year, hosting Roseburg on Saturday, Dec. 30, then hosting several teams, including Sweet Home on Thursday, Jan. 11, the day before the Oregon Wrestling Classic. Huffman added that the team will also host Redmond and a mat club tournament.

"It's going to be an exciting year," he said. "I'm just getting fired up."

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