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Cougars advance four to finals en route to tying all-time record for consecutive team championships.

COURTESY PHOTO: NCJAA - Clackamas Community College's Alex Ramirez (top row, center) won the 157-pound final Saturday to lead the Cougars to a record-tying fourth consecutive team title at the NJCAA Wrestling National Championships in Council Bluffs, Iowa.The goal all along was for the Clackamas Community College wrestling team to make history this season.

On Saturday March 5, the top-ranked Cougars did just that.

Clackamas' Alex Ramirez placed first at 157 pounds and teammates Marckis Branford, Justin Mejia, and Steele Starren finished second at their respective weights, leading the Cougars to a record-tying fourth consecutive team title at the NJCAA Wrestling National Championships in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

The two-day tournament turned into a two-team race between Clackamas and Iowa Central — two small-college wrestling behemoths who combined to win 11 of the past 17 national team titles.

This time, the Cougars prevailed by a 136.5-127 margin over the Tritons of Fort Dodge, Iowa. Northeastern Oklahoma A&M (118), Western Wyoming (116.5), and North Iowa Area CC (109) rounded out the top five.

"Seriously, can you believe it?" Clackamas coach Josh Rhoden said after the Cougars became the fourth team in junior college wrestling history to win four in a row. "I'll be honest, it feels pretty awesome.

"I think the gravity of it, you look back and you don't want to add pressure unnecessarily. But it's pretty exciting to have the opportunity to make some history at a little school in Oregon and when nobody thinks of Oregon as a wrestling state. And yet you've got all these guys who have come together to do something that few others have ever done.

"I think it's pretty exceptional, to be honest. I really do."

Nine of the 10 Clackamas wrestlers who qualified for the tournament earned All-American honors with Victor Jacinto placing third at 149, Nic Aguilar fourth at 125, Michael Gasper fifth at 197, Kyle Richards sixth at heavyweight and Trent Silva sixth at 174.

Heading into Saturday's finals, Clackamas held a 132.5-118 lead over Central Iowa and still had four wrestlers in the hunt for individual titles. The Tritons had three and all were in other weight classes than the Cougars' finalists, so there were no Clackamas-Iowa Central, head-to-head matchups.

After Southwestern Oregon's Jovan Garcia defeated Mejia by a 6-3 decision in the 133-pound final and Pratt's Jacob Mitchell downed an injured Branford 15-8 at 141, Iowa Central's Keaton Geerts won by a 9-0 major decision at 149 to keep the Tritons within striking distance, trailing just 132.5-123.

Ramirez, seeded No. 1 at 157, put an end to the suspense with a 9-4 decision over Iowa Western's Fabian Padilla that sealed the team title for the Cougars.

Ramirez, the freshman from Ontario, Calif., scored the initial takedown with just under a minute remaining in the first round against Padilla. He then used a reversal and a two-point near fall in the first 25 seconds of the second round to open a 6-1 advantage. Another takedown with 50 seconds left in the third round helped put it away.

"Alex is such a special kid," Rhoden said. "He is one of the best kids we've ever coached in terms of a pure wrestler, from his wrestling IQ to his ability to wrestle in positions that other people can't and his ability to pick up technique on the fly.

"The finals match was no different. His re-attacks were on point, he was tough on top, he got away cleanly and he never put himself in danger. He could have scored more points and he admitted as such, but we didn't need him to. And he said, 'I didn't want to risk us not winning the title.'"

Starren, Clackamas' fourth finalist, lost to NIACC's Christian Minto by a 14-5 major decision at 165 — one of the few blemishes in an otherwise spectacular two-day team effort by the Cougars.

"Pretty awesome man," Rhoden said. "I see a lot of satisfied faces as I look around this room. That pleases me immensely.

"The reality is these guys had some pressure that was added without doing anything other than saying 'yes' to coming to Clackamas. Nobody made it about 'Four in a row' or anything like that, but that's still hanging over your head and you're thinking about it. These guys know. They came here for a reason."

Clackamas went into the tournament as a heavy favorite after qualifying wrestlers in all 10 weight classes. All 10 also were seeded among the top 10 in their respective weights, including three No. 1 seeds (Branford at 141, Jacinto at 149 and Ramirez at 157), one No. 2 seed (Gasper at 197), and two No. 4 seeds (Mejia at 133 and Richards at heavyweight).

The Cougars threatened to run away from the field on Friday, March 4, when seven of the 10 wrestlers advanced to Saturday's championship semifinals and two others were still alive in the consolation semifinals.

Together, the Cougars went a combined 26-4 with 10 pins on the first day, giving them 99 points, followed by Iowa Central with 86.5, Northeastern Oklahoma with 84, Western Wyoming with 80.5, and North Idaho with 79.

One match that stood out for Clackamas on Friday was Silva's victory over No. 1-seeded Christian Smoot of Western Wyoming in the quarterfinals at 174. Silva, competing despite a severe left knee injury, won by a 15-6 major decision in a match that the Cougars almost conceded before Silva stepped on the mat.

"Silva has a torn MCL that he's had since the regional," Rhoden said. "Trent won his first match 8-6 with a last-second takedown on one leg. Then he wrestles the No. 1 seed, who beat Trent badly the last time we saw him, and Trent not only won, but he won by major decision.

"We thought about forfeiting the match so we could be in better shape on the back side (consolation matches) and try to place. If Trent Silva doesn't win that match, we wouldn't even be talking about a fourth team title."

Iowa Central and Northeastern Oklahoma had four wrestlers each in the semifinals and Western Wyoming had three, but at that point, everybody chasing Clackamas needed the Cougars to go completely flat on Saturday to have any chance of catching the three-time defending champs.

The Cougars' final margin of victory would have been greater than it was had it not been for an incident in the third-place match at 125 between Aguilar and North Idaho's Jett Strickenberger. Both wrestlers were disqualified from the tournament and the team points each had scored in their previous matches were deducted for their respective team totals, which in Aguilar's case helped keep Iowa Central in a position to pull off an upset.

Clackamas became the fourth team in the history of junior college wrestling to win four consecutive outright championships, joining Lamar (1960-63), North Idaho (1985-88), and Iowa Central (2006-09).

Of the nine Clackamas wrestlers who earned All-American status, Gasper, Jacinto, Mejia, Ramirez, Silva, and Starren are eligible to return next season.

Will the Cougars have enough to make a serious run at a fifth consecutive title?

"I think we better get back to recruiting," Rhoden said. "We've got some work to do at a couple of weights, you know what I mean?"


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