Tigers run away with second straight championship
Packed into its steaming home gym with large, cooling fans whirring away in the doorways, the Newberg High School wrestling team was comfortable. Not physically, of course, considering the state is trapped under a "heat dome" as defined by meteorologists, but the Tigers were sitting on a comfortable lead in the race for a 6A state championship.
Newberg didn't wilt in the heat, maintaining its gargantuan points advantage over the competition on the way to its second state championship in as many years. The Tigers scored 490.5 team points, a school record, far ahead of second-place Sprague (261.5) and third-place Roseburg (198.5). It was a performance for the ages in a season like no other.
"I can't say enough good things," NHS coach Neil Russo said. "There's nothing better than winning with good kids, and this year they have overcome so much. They can talk about whether this is an official state tournament or whatever, but I think this year was probably the most difficult year to compete. This group works hard, competes hard, (has) fun and loves each other.
"This is my 30th year of coaching and I'm having more fun than I've ever had. Obviously winning is a part of that, but these kids just make me laugh every day and keep me on my toes. I love all of them, they love each other, and I think most of them love me."
It didn't hurt the Tigers to compete for a title in their home gym, a result of the OSAA not officially sanctioning the 6A tournament and leaving the task of organizing to the Oregon Wrestling Association and the NHS athletic department.
But familiar surroundings were far from the primary reason for Newberg's dominance. All season, Newberg's depth and versatility led to lopsided scores in dual meet after dual meet, even against top competition. Friday and Saturday's state championship run was just more of the same.
Newberg boasted five individual state championships: Freshman Zachary Keinonen at 113 pounds, junior Nicky Olmstead at 126, junior Ayden Garver at 145, junior Charlie Evans at 152 and sophomore Hudson Davis at 195.
Five Newberg wrestlers finished in second place — one of them to his own teammate — and three placed third. The podium constantly featured one or more Tigers, begging the question: Is this the greatest Newberg team ever?
"If I had to argue, I'd say we're the best," Evans said, fresh off his championship bout. "Obviously, I didn't watch past generations, but look at what we've achieved and everything we had to get past this year. The numbers show we're one of the greatest."
Russo smiled at the question. He's been asked it time and again this season.
"My Uncle (Tony Russo) had some teams he might throw in there in the mix," Russo said with a laugh. "It might be the best 14 we've ever had, that's up for debate, but there's no question in my mind that this is the best 28 I've ever seen. We have kids who couldn't even get in our lineup who would've scored points and placed at this tournament. We're deep and our room is competitive."
Plenty of high school sports teams describe themselves as fun-loving and close-knit and plenty of coaches rave about the character of their athletes. But rarely are those common refrains backed up by unabated supremacy over the competition and followed by raucous celebration.
Dynasties can breed arrogance, pride and joyless backslapping. One would be hard-pressed to find any of that among the jovial Tigers, whose ear-to-ear smiles, inside jokes and happy tears were a welcome distraction for them from a muggy, sweat-stinking gymnasium. As they clutched yet another state championship trophy, it mattered little to Newberg that the OSAA logo wasn't emblazoned on the front. The eventful journey of getting to this new mountaintop — in the face of a pandemic — mattered a great deal more.
"Our wrestling community and the administration here at Newberg High School made this happen," Russo said of the 6A tournament. "Kudos to all of them. We could've done this the easy way and walked away from this, but we didn't, and I think the effort by everyone involved to get this done embodies wrestling in a way."
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