Culver cruises to yet another title
So much for a down year.
The Culver wrestling team heard some of those sentiments from the onset, even in the middle, of its 2017-18 season, that the loss of six important graduated seniors would impede its ability to duplicate last year's performance.
A younger group of Bulldogs, although somewhat lacking in experience, were plenty motivated to prove themselves.
The path they took was different, but the end result was similar. Culver won its fifth straight team title and 11th in the last 12 years. The Bulldogs boasted five individual champions in Lorenzo Vasquez (120 pounds), Jorge Olivera (145), Victor Torres (152), Jerron Rhen (160) and Cylus Hoke (195), all of whom helped Culver score 201.5 team points, just one point shy of its 2017 record-setting points tally at the 2A/1A level.
In addition to the champs, several others reached the podium, some in their first appearances at state. Anthony Hood (113) and Orlando Torres (126) took second, Brody Piercy (106) and Lane Downing (132) both placed third, while Hunter Augustynovich (145) and Joe Russo (170) reached the podium in fourth.
"Boy, there's a lot of good to talk about," head coach J.D. Alley said.
A lot, indeed. Culver's string of titlists began with Vasquez winning his third title in three high school seasons, after he pinned Myrtle Point's Tyler Huerta in 1 minute, 38 seconds.
Vasquez finished the year with a 40-2 record, putting together a dominant run from start to finish, and was undefeated wrestling in the state of Oregon.
The attention will shift to Vasquez's quest for a fourth state title next year as a senior, but he has another goal in mind before then.
"Right now, I'm going to enjoy it for a little bit, but I really want to go for a triple crown — a state title in folkstyle, freestyle and greco," Vasquez said. "I would be the first Culver person to ever do that if I can."
At 145, Olivera put the finishing touches on a decorated high school career that included three individual titles, with a win by fall over Toledo's Hunter Lewis in 55 seconds. After his hand was raised, he ran over to his coaches, Alley and Miguel Baltazar, and jumped into Baltazar's arms.
"I was going into this match and I was super nervous ... you never know what can happen in state finals matches," Olivera said. "I wanted to make sure all those 11 years I wrestled, that all my work was paying off. Every time I took a shot, I withdrew some cash. My piggy bank was full, so I was cashing out all my hard work."
He was nearly flawless in three matches during the tournament, all of which ended in pins, and without a single point given up.
Olivera and Vasquez joined an elite club of Culver greats who won three or more titles: Miguel Baltazar, Jared Kasch, Marco Retano, Clay McClure and Alley.
"I'm proud of the kids," Alley said. "The learning curve was steeper than last year. Some of that is good leadership. Hats off to Jorge and company. Hats off to Lorenzo for having passion oozing out of his veins."
From there, the following three Culver state finalists were all looking for their first state title, and all three delivered.
Victor Torres was hungry to improve on last year's second-place finish, and at the start of his finals match against Bobby Davidson of Santiam, perhaps he was a little overeager.
Davidson briefly turned Torres onto his back in the first round, before Torres was able to maneuver out of it. A 5-5 tie at the end of one round was broken when Torres took down Davidson less than 10 seconds into the second, and kept the lead for the remaining time in an eventual 18-7 major decision.
"I went in a little too hard," Torres said. "I looked over at coach (Alley), and he told me to calm down a little ... Honestly, after I got off my back, I think I knew I had it."
In a battle of two seniors, Rhen was able to edge Lowell's Nate Roat 7-0 in a match that went the whole first round without a score. But Rhen earned an escape in the second round and got on a roll.
Prior to this season, Rhen was often forced to play second fiddle to older, more experienced teammates. But in his senior year, Rhen earned a No. 1 seed and carved out his own path en route to a first state title.
"It feels amazing," Rhen said. "Obviously wrestling takes hard work, and it's a long, long path for some or most champions."
Hoke earned a rematch with Glendale's William Kidwell, after Hoke won the first meeting at the 195-pound district finals two weeks prior. This time around, Hoke got on top of Kidwell early, and swiftly pinned him in 41 seconds, the quickest win by fall Culver had during the tournament.
"I slowed down the match; I probably could've ended it faster," Hoke said. "I just wanted to make sure I was in control. I felt that I was in good position to end it in the first round, so I just stayed calm and relaxed, wrestled the way I knew how."
Coaches and teammates took notice of Hoke's improvement as the season was about to begin, and he promptly won his first three tournaments of the year. Still, Hoke wanted to make certain he kept moving upward into February.
"Wrestlers have a term that you got to hit your peak at the best time of the season, and I was afraid that I hit that right off the bat," Hoke said. "I figured I just had to keep working hard and make sure I hit my peak this time of the year."
The Bulldogs' youth movement this season required lots of kids to mature quickly. The flip side now is that many of them will return to the fold next year, and with a good deal of state experience all combined.
"I think people underestimate us a lot, but this year was pretty darn close to last year's team," Victor Torres said. "We're a pretty young team in a way (with) lots of juniors."
Added Hoke, "Everybody plays a role in the team. Whether you made it to state or not, they all helped one way or another ... I feel like we had to work a lot harder this year as a team. We couldn't rely on all those (older) guys to get it done for us. Some guys filled some pretty big shoes for us this year."