Cougars roll over SWOCC in wrestling season opener
It may be too early in the junior college wrestling season for Clackamas Community College to start talking about making a run at a fourth consecutive NJCAA national championship.
Or is it?
"No, we work hard every day and that's been our dream since day one — to win a fourth," said Marckis Branford, the Cougars' two-time All-American from Easton, Pennsylvania. "It's only been done once before, I think, so that's something we'd like to do."
Actually, the Cougars of Clackamas County are looking to become the fourth team to win four consecutive national titles outright in the history of junior college wrestling, following in the footsteps of Lamar (Colorado) Community College (1960-63), North Idaho (1985-88), and Iowa Central (2006-09).
Also, four is the record. No team has ever won five in a row.
Like most of the other perennial small-college powerhouses, Clackamas returns several sophomores who were granted an additional year of eligibility following the COVID-plagued 2020-21 season. The Cougars are counting on that experience to help reserve their spot among the nation's elite, but the question remains: Is it realistic to think they have the wrestlers to make a serious run at another national title?
"I think it's super-realistic," said Kyle Richards, the sophomore heavyweight from Folsom, California. "This is my third year here, and it's probably the most talented team we've ever had. Everyone wants it. We're determined."
The Cougars took an impressive first step in the Nov. 6 season opener, winning eight of 10 matches and rolling to a 35-6 home win over the Southwestern Oregon Lakers at CCC's Randall Hall in Oregon City.
Branford helped set the tone for the dual with a 17-1 technical fall over Freddy Barajas at 141 pounds, while Clackamas punctuated the victory with pins by Michael Gasper at 197 and Richards at heavyweight. Nic Aguilar added a 9-5 decision for the Cougars at 125, Victor Jacinto won 6-3 at 149, Jake Richardson won by forfeit at 165, Josiah Green scored a 6-3 decision at 174, and Romeo Manue won 3-2 at 184.
Jovan Garcia provided one of two bright spots for the Lakers of Coos Bay with a 10-5 decision over Isaac Lopez at 133. Jett Nelson added the other with a 6-2 decision over Cole Meredith at 157.
"It felt like the opener," Clackamas coach Josh Rhoden said. "There were some things we didn't do well in terms of mat management, clock management and end-of-round type stuff that we can clean up.
"Some guys looked pretty good. Some things worked. And then we went away from them for a little while because we're not perfectly confident in those things yet. But we'll get there, I think. We've got a good bunch of guys."
The Cougars earned 73 points in the voting and landed in the top spot in the NJCAA preseason rankings that were released Nov. 2, with Pratt CC of Kansas (72), Western Wyoming (69), Northeastern Oklahoma (61), and Indian Hills of Iowa (55) rounding out the top five.
Dax Bennett, another returning All-American who sat out the opener with an ankle injury, and Branford both ranked No. 1 at 174 and 141, respectively. The preseason rankings also listed Richardson as No. 3 at 165, Aguilar is No. 4 at 125, Gasper is No. 4 at 197, Lopez is No. 7 at 133, Richards is No. 7 at heavyweight, and Manue is No. 8 at 184.
It all looked incredibly solid as the Cougars hit the mat against the Lakers, but it remains to be seen how things unfold between now and the March 4-5 national championships in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
"'Can we come together as a team?' is always a question in junior college, every year, it doesn't matter," said Rhoden, now in his 16th season as the Cougars head coach. "Yes, we have a lot of wrestlers returning, but there's also a lot of personality changes. How will those guys mesh together as the season progresses?
"Now that there's a lot of guys — we had 52 turn out and we had to cut — a lot of guys want an opportunity. So, finding that right combination of guys is really where we've had luck, I guess you could say. Or, we've strategized well, because we have a lot of talks about 'Who is the right person?' Decisions are always based on who is the best wrestler.
"Last year, we had that at a couple of weights where we took a guy who wasn't necessarily a better wrestler, but he was a better 'team' guy. And that's the case right now, just finding out, "OK, who's in?' And seeing things tonight, like who's yelling on the bench and who's looking at their phone or looking up in the stands?"
One of the statistics that jumped out from the opener was that of the nine weights that were contested, the Cougars scored the initial takedown in eight — a reflection of the aggressive, no-nonsense attitude that has permeated throughout the program in recent years.
"I think this was a very good performance, but we could have gone out and put up more bonus points than we did," Branford said. "We just need to keep believing in our head coach and sticking to what he has us doing and we'll let everything just fall into place.
"We expect to go out there and be the best, no matter where we go. Like at home tonight, it was our mat. But no matter where we go, we think it's our mat."
Added Richards: "I don't know if you heard it tonight, but the energy was super-high. We really love wrestling. Every time someone who wears our singlet steps on the mat, it's 10 of our guys against one of their guys. We have the whole team behind us, and we just want it more than most of these teams. I think that's what really separates us from the rest.
"We need to just stay on track and keep grinding. I think we're probably the hardest-working junior college team in the country, so if we can outwork everyone in the practice room, we'll outwork everyone on the mat when the time comes."
The Cougars are traveling to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, on Nov. 19 for duals against No. 6 North Idaho and No. 3 Northwest Wyoming.
"I think I'm more excited to see how guys do than I have questions about where they're at," Rhoden said. "I don't feel we have a lot of question marks. I think we feel pretty good about each weight class. If we get the right guy in, we feel really confident in the weight class.
"This is like Christmas morning for me. I love opening the season. I love when the guys get to compete against other people. In a normal, non-COVID year, it's eight weeks of just us and us, and now they get to wrestle somebody else, and that's exciting."
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