Oh, so close
Filled with drama, the state wrestling tournament was a real nail-biter that came down to the final match of the evening.
"I'm extremely proud of our boys," said Crook County assistant coach Pard Smith. "We have a saying, 'stay in the fight,' and we pinned our way through the placing rounds. Our guys in the finals came and did what they needed to do to win state titles. I couldn't be prouder of them."
The Crook County Cowboys had done all that they could in the championship round, going three for three in their finals matches to take a 4.5 point lead.
However, then Crook County had to wait as second-place Crescent Valley still had one wrestler left to compete. That wrestler was No. 1-ranked heavyweight Kaimana Wa'a, who would wrestle Ashten Brecht of Dallas in the final match of the night.
"I'm really proud of my team," said Crook County sophomore Steven Ware while the Cowboys waited to see who would win the tournament. "The fact that we are even in the top five makes me so happy because we have a lot of freshmen and a lot of people that haven't been on varsity before. We have people missing and some people that were just on varsity because we need spots to fill and some of them are scoring a lot of points. We just have to wait to see if it is enough."
In the end, it wasn't as Wa'a pinned Brecht 41 seconds into the match, giving Crescent Valley the team championship by just 1.5 points.
Crescent Valley, who brought just eight wrestlers to the state championships, crowned five individual champions and maximized their bonus points as the Raiders finished the tournament with five individual champions and 187.5 points. Crook County was second with 186, while Dallas, which led for much of the tournament, failed to score in the championship round and finished third with 163.5 points. Rounding out the top five were Thurston in fourth with 152.5 points and Crater in fifth with 119.
The final outcome was reminiscent of 2017 when the Cowboys lost the Class 4A state championship by .5 points to Sweet Home.
However, this time was very different. The Cowboys went into the state championships missing three wrestlers who were expected to place, and possibly win, at state. In addition, first-year head coach Jake Gonzalez made the trip over to Portland with the team but then had to leave early Friday morning after learning that his wife had gone into labor.
The family had a healthy baby boy Friday afternoon, but Gonzalez was unable to make it back to the tournament.
"I feel like with Gonzo (Jake Gonzalez's nickname) not being here, it kind of motivated us to wrestler to our best to do it for him," said Hunter Mode, who won the 126-pound individual title. "We are missing a bunch of people, but other guys stepped up and wrestled really tough and gave us a chance to win."
Mode, a junior, who also won an individual title last year, said that this year's win, a 4-1 decision over league rival Alex Rendon of Pendleton, was very different.
"The energy is better because last year I was against my teammate, so it was kind of mixed emotions for everybody, but this year, it was really exciting," Mode said. "There is stuff to work on for next year, for sure, but I feel like I wrestled probably the best I have all year."
In addition to Mode, the Cowboys crowned two other individual champions: Zach Mauras at 132 pounds, and Kyle Knudtson at 182 pounds.
"It's amazing," said Mauras, who finished second a year ago. "It's three years of just putting in hard work, and it's finally paid off. It's way worth it. He was a really good opponent, and I expected it to come down to the wire, but all I could hear my coaches say is 'keep pushing. Believe in yourself. Keep pushing, your pace is going to beat him.' They were saying go, go, go, and that's what I did, and it turned out pretty good."
Mauras, a junior, went on to control the match, taking a 12-4 major decision over Joseph Foster of Dallas.
Knudtson, who also finished second a year ago, was excited to win his first state title.
"It's not even comparable," he said. "I mean, this year I won, last year I lost. I wrestled really sloppy my first three matches, but that last one I told myself it's time to dominate. This is your year, and he's coming for you."
Dominate the junior did, pinning Ridgeview's Cole Jackson just 54 seconds into the match.
The Cowboys also picked up three third-place finishes as Tucker Bonner, 106, Ware, 113, and Caleb Parrott, 285, all finished in third.
Bonner, a freshman, upset teammate Tannon Joyner in the quarterfinals and went on to finish third at 106 pounds.
"I feel good about it," he said. "It's good to build off of for my future. The goal is to keep working hard in the room. I have great partners to push me to go and win some state titles as soon as possible."
Parrott, one of just three Cowboy seniors at the state tournament, was disappointed with his third-place finish, but was pleased that he ended the season with a win.
The 285-pounder lost in the semifinals to Brecht, then battled back through the consolation rounds to pin Jaydon deFond of Churchill in the third-place match.
"It was not the win that I wanted, but it feels good to end the year with a win," he said. "I take finishing second (in the team race) personal, and I definitely feel responsible. It will hurt for a long while."
Parrott said that he believed that he should have been able to defeat Brecht in the semifinal match and that would have been enough for the Cowboys to win the team title.
However, Crook County assistant coach Pard Smith was quick to point out that the coaching staff was pleased with how well Parrott and the rest of the team had performed.
"I would say that there are hidden points throughout a tournament," he said. "Everywhere you look there's a half-point here or a point there. You live together and die together. It's a team deal. It's nobody's fault. I'm extremely proud of them."
The tournament was especially emotional for Ware. Ware, a sophomore, had been wrestling all season while his brother, Rowdy, was in the hospital in Portland with aplastic anemia. Ware had dedicated his season to his brother and said that he put a lot of pressure on himself to make the family proud.
On Saturday, Rowdy was feeling well enough to attend the tournament, and Ware's emotions spilled over.
After a tough come-from-behind victory over Rian Howard of Lebanon for the right to wrestle for third place, Ware's emotions erupted.
Trailing by, 10 Ware was able to earn a reversal and pin Howard in the third round.
Celebrating the win, Ware spiked his headgear on the mat, earning an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that cost Crook County a team point.
"This was the first tournament that my brother was able to go to all year," Ware said. "I was really trying to make him happy, and I got a little emotional at some times; but I think that's just part of wrestling and part of life. I felt a lot of pressure because I really wanted to make my brother proud."
Ware, who was behind in all four of his wins at the state tournament, needed pins each time in order to win, and each time picked up a fall as he battled back to finish third at 113 pounds.
"Our coaches always say to stay calm," he said. "No one is as conditioned as we are, so that's what I did. I was down by five, seven or even 10 like that last match, and I just stayed calm and was able to beat them in the third round."
Fortunately, the penalty ended up making no difference in the final outcome, and Ware's teammates were all supportive.
"Steven was pulling wins out of his butt," Knudtson said. "That was insane. His heart was tremendous. I can't compare anything to it, especially considering how everything is going down with his family and his brother is finally starting to bet better. To have him come out and compete like that is just amazing."
The final Cowboy to place was senior Garrett Bond, who placed fifth at 170 pounds, pinning Pendleton's Aiden Patterson with less than a second left in their match.
"It was a good way to go out," Bond said. "I knew I was busting my butt in practice, so I had confidence that I could place."
Although the remaining 10 Cowboys who qualified for the state tournament failed to place, eight of those 10 were able to pick up at least one win.
Joyner, a sophomore, went 1-2 at 106 pounds; Jace England, a junior, was 2-2 at 120 pounds; Trentyn Maryanski, a freshman, went 1-2 at 120 pounds; freshman Brayden Duke was 1-2 at 145 pounds; while sophomore Ben Sather finished 2-2 at 152 pounds.
Other Cowboys to win at least one match were freshman Gavin McLean, who went 1-2 at 160 pounds; senior Colton Schlachter, who was 1-2 at 195 pounds; and sophomore Hayden Hilderbrand, who went 1-2 at 220 pounds.
Freshman Victor Rodriguez and junior Tanklin Thomasson also competed at state but did not win matches.
Although the team was disappointed to finish in second, they were also pleased with their accomplishments.
"There were a couple of things that we could have done better, but it happened how it was supposed to happen," Knudtson said.
"Everyone wrestled their hearts out," Bonner added. "Everyone has done their best. I trust the coaching staff 100 percent and I feel fine."
"Not very many teams can hang with us in the third round," Mauras said. "We have proved time and again that we can come from behind. It just proves that we are doing something right at Crook County. I think it says something about our character and our culture. We are willing to put it all on the line. We are going to face adversity, but we do that every day in the wrestling room practicing against the toughest guys in the state. We just push each other as hard as we can."
Although he would like to have won a state title, Gonzalez was also pleased with how hard the team has worked and how well they competed at state.
"I think our guys stepped up," Gonzalez said Sunday afternoon. "We were in position to win the whole thing, it just didn't work out, but I'm proud of those guys. The goal was to win it. Second place isn't where we want to be, but we'll be OK."
"We got some young guys qualified for the state tournament and got them some matches," he said. "That's a big learning experience and next year that is going to make them that much better. We have had a great year. Our kids are battle tested. Obviously, it didn't turn out like we wanted, but we are going to celebrate the successes that we had here."
Crescent Valley returns four of their five state champions and seven of their eight state qualifiers. In addition they have several young wrestlers who are expected to step in next year and immediately challenge for individual state titles, making the Raiders tough again next year.
However, both Smith and Gonzalez believe that the Cowboys are also going to be even stronger next year.
"We are going to give them a couple of weeks off and then we will get back in there and work to get better," Gonzalez said. "Our expectations are always going to be held pretty high. We have a good group and I'm excited. Go Cowboys."