Cowboys loaded with talent and still looking to improve
"Unity," that's the word that Crook County head wrestling coach Jake Huffman used to describe this year's team. "We had a pretty close-knit group. It's not that our groups from the past haven't been close-knit, but there was just something about this group that everyone felt like they were part of the team. There was just a chemistry with the coaching staff and the team combined."
That unity led to the Cowboys' fifth state title in the last six years, and according to Huffman, the team is poised to win more championships in the near future.
However, those championships will be without Huffman directing the program.
Following this year's state championship, Huffman announced that he is stepping down as head coach.
"Sometimes coaches leave when they know they are going to have a down year, or sometimes they want to finish out a certain class or whatever, but I feel really good about the health of the program. I also feel really proud and excited about the future. We have a lot of firepower coming back, however, you want to describe it. We have some horses in the stable that are ready to continue this thing on, and I think we have a good chance of another win streak here. I'm excited about the future and excited to support Crook County wrestling in different ways."
Huffman noted that there wasn't one single reason for him to step down as head coach.
"Just say it's good timing," he said. "I feel like it's a natural process when you have guys in the program that want to step up and be head coaches, and I feel like they deserve the right to do that. They've earned it."
Huffman added that he has four children and a wife who works full time, so family was also a consideration in his decision.
"It's good timing, and it's what I wanted to do," he said. "My family left it up to me, and I said, 'It's time for me to do it. I feel like we are at a point in Crook County wrestling where I can do that and we can still be successful."
Huffman steps down as the most successful wrestling coach in school history, with five state championships in eight years as the head coach.
He leaves a program that appears to be stacked with talent.
Of the 15 wrestlers who qualified for state this year, 11 are back, including nine wrestlers who placed at this year's state tournament.
Not only that, but the middle school and mat club programs are both running in high gear.
The middle school program recently won the Central Oregon Middle School Wrestling Championships, and more importantly, has qualified 18 wrestlers for this year's middle school state championships.
"We qualified 18 Cowboys or Colts, I guess, which is five more than we have had for the last two years, with another chance for a state title for the middle school," he said. "I don't think there is any other middle school program that can say that they are in the hunt for a middle school state title every year. It's everybody. It's all classifications and Crook County Middle School, year in and year out, is always in the top five with a chance to win it. That's really a huge reason why we have been so successful at the high school."
The Cowboy Mat Club has been equally successful this year, guaranteeing that there will be talent coming into the high school program for years to come.
Huffman is always quick to credit others for the success that both he and the Cowboys have had.
He notes that this year's senior class deserves much of the credit for the program's success.
From athletes such as Wyatt Parker and Turner Austin, who never reached the state tournament in their four years in the high school program, to athletes like Pacer Quire, who placed each of his four years, including winning a state championship this year.
"They were a great group of kids," he said. "A lot of them were seasoned veterans, and some of them were starting to make breakthroughs."
Huffman noted that Parker, who was injured in practice late in the year, was poised to help the team at state this year after not wrestling a single varsity match until late in the season.
Austin also just missed out on a trip to the state tournament.
Huffman said that both helped the team be successful by their hard work and attitude in the practice room.
The other seniors who spent four years with the program — Tucker Shores, Cole Morgan, Tyler Fioravanti and Quire — all were able to compete at this year's state championship.
Shores had made it to the state tournament as a sophomore, then made it back again this year, but did not place.
"I feel like I have known Shores forever," Huffman said. "He finished strong and decided to get refocused at the right time and got himself qualified for state. Unfortunately, he wasn't feeling good at state and didn't have the kind of tournament he wanted, but again, he deserves a lot of credit for the way the program has gone the last few years."
Morgan also failed to place at state this year. The 132-pound senior made it to the state tournament each of his four years in the program, placing in both his sophomore and junior years.
This year, he was poised to place even higher before being disqualified from the tournament on a controversial call.
"Things didn't turn out his way, but that's just a minor setback for Morgan," Huffman said. "I know that's something that is going to bother him, but at the same time, he is going to be successful."
Meanwhile, Fioravanti placed third this year, while Quire went out on top.
"Fio, Morgan and Quire, they've been cornerstones of our program for a long time," Huffman said. "The young guys look to them for guidance, and they have shown the way. They do things the right way, all three of them, in the practice room, you look around and those are three of the hardest working kids that you will see. I am just really thankful for all the things those seniors have done for us."
Although the seniors will obviously be missed, the team will probably be even more talented next year.
Returning state placers include sophomore Hunter Mode, first 106 pounds; freshman Steven Ware, second 106; sophomore Tannon Joyner, second 113; freshman Trevor Martin, fifth 113; sophomore Zachary Mauras, second 126; junior Colton Burkhardt, fourth 160; sophomore Kyle Knudtson, second 170; junior Jaxson Rhoden, second 182; and junior Caleb Parrott, fourth 285.
Juniors Mario Hanson and Cal Wilcox, both 220 pounds, also have state tournament experience.
Although Huffman has stepped aside, the program is moving ahead.
Assistant coach Jake Gonzalez is currently directing the off-season program for the team, and according to Huffman, hopes to become the head coach.
"I know that the kids are working hard," Huffman said. "We have a big group of kids that want to go to Fargo, and a big group of kids that want to go to the Reno World Championships this spring, and we have a big group of kids that are going to participate in spring wrestling, and we are going to do that two days a week. Coach Gonzalez has got a schedule already laid, out and those guys are really motivated to continue to wrestle at a high level and continue to improve."
As with his athletes, Huffman credits Gonzalez and the rest of the assistant coaching staff for the team's recent success.
"Jake's like a brother to me, so I will do everything I have to help him," Huffman said. "And the rest of the coaching staff has done a great job. I feel like people (both the coaches and team members) really enjoyed coming to work every day, even though the work was hard. As a result, the state tournament wasn't close."
Huffman added that next year will have new challenges as the Cowboys move up to Class 5A.
"It's a new challenge. There are different teams, and there is going to be different rivalries, and that's exciting," he said. "I think the most exciting thing for me is that it rekindles the Redmond-Crook County rivalry. It's always a rivalry, but now we are in the same league again, so now those matches count, and that's always a fun thing to be a part of."
Huffman said that perennial powers Crater and Dallas will be a challenge as will up-and-coming teams like Sandy, Silverton and Lebanon, but that the Cowboys are as good or better than any team in the state, regardless of classification.
"We have as good a team as anybody in the state coming back next year, and I mean anybody in the state," Huffman said.
Whether or not he continues with the program remains to be seen, but what is sure is that Huffman is confident that the program will continue to be successful and is pleased with what the program has accomplished.
"I think the thing that I'm most proud of is that we have created a cooperative group when you look at the mat club, to the middle school to the high school," he said. "It's not just me. It's not just Jake Gonzalez. It's not just the other high school assistants. It's a large group of people that all have the same goal in mind and are passionate about the sport and success. So I feel really good about the health of the program from bottom to top. I'm really excited about the future and excited to support Crook County wrestling in different ways. I love the program and the community."