Manu surprises field with second-place finish
The significance of Harrison Manu's semifinals win on Saturday was apparent from the moment he rose from the mat, yelling and pumping his fists while gazing up at the Memorial Coliseum crowd.
He had just pinned Junction City's Tyler Morris in 3 minutes, 19 seconds to earn a trip to the 4A 195-pound state finals. Manu, a senior, had twice qualified for state before during his high school career, but Saturday marked the first time he would be wrestling in the finals. Realizing the progress he made, since he first started wrestling, Manu took a moment to reflect on the journey.
"I always dreamed of this moment for nine straight years," said an emotional Manu after the semifinals. "It's one of the greatest feelings ever to make it to the state finals. I've come a long way and I've just been busting my (butt) for months and months just for this moment."
In White Buffalo wrestling history, state titles are a rare sight to behold. Jesse Armstrong (2000), Chad McFarland (2002), Ryan Brunner (2010) and Travis Williams (2012) make up a short list of the Buffs' individual champs. Manu put himself in position to join the club, but in the finals, he came up just short of the reaching the top podium spot.
The 195 finals was a district rematch between Manu and Banks sophomore James Ellis — the No. 1 seed in the bracket — who had pinned Manu in their first meeting one week before the state tournament. The second time around, Manu and his coaches thought they had a good idea of Ellis' tendencies.
But in the finals, Ellis registered two near falls in the first round, and had a 6-0 advantage at the end of the 2-minute period. He then went on to pin Manu early in the second round.
"Ellis, we knew, was going to be the tricky one; he's different," Madras head coach Cameron Mitchem said. "That was definitely not the way we saw that (match) coming out … Give him all the credit. He had a plan, and he put it together."
Manu finished the season with a 38-4 record, an impressive feat when taking into consideration his physical limitations at the start of the year. He suffered a knee injury during the last football game of fall season, and proceeded to wear a large brace, stretching from his quad to his calf, for the entire wrestling season. After the first couple tournaments, his injury was a nonfactor the rest of the way.
"At first, yeah, it felt like I wasn't going to be any good with just one leg," Manu said. "But I overcame that mental block early in the season. I just realized that I can still do this, you know, I got this. It's just been a confidence boost from there. Not to the point where I feel like I'm cocky, but I believed in myself."
As a No. 7 seed, Manu earned his way to the state finals with an opening round win by fall over Mazama's Jacob Healy. He then watched as the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds on his side of the bracket were both knocked off by unseeded wrestlers, Jimmy Acevedo of Newport and Junction City's Morris. Manu proceeded to pin both of them, as well.
"I look at where he's progressed in the last two years, and I'm just proud of where he's come," Mitchem said. "He's had a hell of a season.
"He's become a student of the sport. He rarely gets hung up on the same thing twice, and has just learned to get better. He's a raw talent."
Also representing Madras at state was fellow senior Thomas LeClaire, who went 2-2 at 170 in his first state appearance. He hung on for a 12-9 decision win over Kolby Lavin-Williams of Douglas in the opening round.
LeClaire then drew one of the toughest kids in the whole tournament, Marshfield senior Travis Wittlake, who pinned LeClaire in 1:30, and went on to capture his fourth state title, becoming just the 34th wrestler in OSAA history to accomplish the milestone.
LeClaire then came back in the consolation bracket to claim a 16-5 major decision over Philomath's Connor Kohn, but was eliminated in the following round by Sweet Home's Nick James, by a 10-1 major decision.
"You gotta beat somebody tough along the road to be a state placer, and we didn't quite get it done, but I think looking back, he'll be happy that he got here," Mitchem said.
In addition to LeClaire and Manu, Madras will lose a handful of important seniors to graduation. With few juniors on the team, the Buffs will need a host of younger wrestlers to step up in the next couple of seasons.
"They're going to be missed, not only in wrestling, but football as well," Mitchem said of his senior class. "I looked at this job two years ago, I looked at that group and said, 'We can do some good things,' and I think we have. Hopefully in a few years, we look back on this year (as) the start of the change."