Culver wrestling is up for a new challenge
Once every blue moon, Culver gets a group of seniors who are collectively dominant.
It has happened only a select few times during J.D. Alley's tenure as Bulldogs' head coach, and last year was one of them.
The likes of Marco Retano, Jaiden Jones, Saxton Schaffner, Jace Oppenlander and Mack Little all reached the state finals multiple times during their careers, and combined for six individual titles, three of which belonged to Retano.
Culver's wrestling room looks drastically different without them. But in a quick glance at the ones who are still there, you'll find a nice mix of state champions, podium placers and a few others who have waited patiently behind their elder, accomplished teammates. The Bulldogs are still plenty capable of winning an 11th team state title in 12 years, even if the path to get there may look cloudier than last season.
"Graduation was hard on the Bulldogs," Alley said.
"But, if you dig a little bit deeper, we return two state champs, a couple runners-up and a couple thirds. So there's six guys with podium experience — that's a pretty good core to build on."
The champs, Lorenzo Vasquez at 113 and Jorge Olivera at 145 are both in the midst of runs that include two consecutive state titles. In terms of scoring points, they were equally dependable, if not more so, than any senior on last year's team.
Behind them, it gets more interesting. Victor Torres and Orlando Torres got a taste of the finals for the first time last year, though each had to settle for second place.
By virtue of coming that close to a championship, the two brothers have had a whole offseason to think about the way last year ended as they approach this one.
Orlando, now a sophomore, burst onto the scene as a freshman on the biggest of stages, such as the Sierra Nevada Classic in Reno and the Cowdog Classic, when the Bulldogs upended mighty Crook County in their annual duals match. Before coaches could blink, he was wrestling in the 120 finals at state.
Victor, meanwhile, has been a symbol of steady progress since his freshman year, when he finished fourth at state, albeit with a dislocated elbow, and last year as a runner-up.
He feels a sense of leadership stepping into the room this year, not because he's an upperclassman, but because he's now one of four remaining wrestlers who have earned a spot in the finals.
"J.D. told me and my brother last year, 'You guys are state finalists now, you're looked at differently," Victor Torres said. "Our roles switched once we stepped into that finals match. Especially for me, my brother, Lorenzo and Jorge, I think when you show accomplishment ... self discipline, that's when your roles switch."
Besides those four, however, are a few guys in particular who once took a back seat to that senior class, but now find themselves in the spotlight. Jerron Rhen (152) and Cylus Hoke (195) were in the same bracket as teammates Schaffner and Jones, respectively. After Rhen and Hoke lost their first round matches, both were unblemished for the rest of the tournament and went on to place third.
Joe Russo found himself in a similar situation at 160, where Retano was also entered. All three could be in for breakout seasons.
"When people say it's going to be a rough year because all those seniors graduate, they forget that sophomores grow up and turn into juniors," Alley said.
Other names to note include Cooper Becker, a senior, who is back in Culver after spending last school year in Sandy. Freshman Anthony Hood figures to make an early impact as a lightweight, and sophomores Johan Jaimes and Lane Downing should also be improved.
From 106 to 182, Culver shouldn't have any trouble putting at least two wrestlers in each weight class. The Bulldogs are sparse from there, however, as Hoke and senior Cole Little, who qualified for state as a sophomore, are the only two returning with experience.
Those weights could get exposed in duals, but shouldn't have much of an adverse effect on the team elsewhere.
Although inexperienced now, it is a group that appears eager to work towards progress and battle.
"The group of kids we have right now are pretty hard working," Vasquez said. "I think they can fill those spots."
The Bulldogs will first appear at home Dec. 8-9, with the Culver Invitational.