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Tigers begin campaign to win a third consecutive wrestling state championship with Rose City Classic this weekend

PMG FILE PHOTO - Charlies Evans is one of five returning state champions on this year's Newberg team.

Newberg will begin its quest for a third consecutive state wrestling title on Friday at the Rose City Classic in Beaverton. Neil Russo, in his 23rd year as coach, likes the Tigers' chances.

"We lost a number of seniors from last year's roster, but we like what we have coming back and especially like this senior class and their leadership," he said in an email. "Our goal is to be in the running for a trophy at the OSAA championships at the end of February and we'll see where the chips fall."

The drive for a third state title began when practices commenced on Nov. 15. Although some of the team's 50 wrestlers began preparing earlier, others competed at that time in fall sports, particularly football and cross country.

Russo, who wrestled for legendary coach and uncle Tony Russo until his graduation from NHS in 1987, hopes the Rose City Classic will serve as a gauge of where the team is at.Neil Russo is in his 23rd year as coach at Newberg after wrestling for Tiger legend Tony Russo, his uncle, when he was in high school.

"We are working hard to get ready, and this weekend will be a good barometer of what we need to work on and will also help us settle line-up issues as we go forward," he said.

The Tigers return 10 finalists from the team that ran roughshod over the competition in the pandemic-delayed state championships last spring, racking up a school record 490.5 points to quell any challenge from second-place Sprague (261.5) and third-place Roseburg (198.5).

Included are state champions Zach Keinonen, Nicky Olmstead, Ayden Garver, Charlie Evans and Hudson Davis on the boys team and Sophia Redwine on the girls team. Newberg also returns second-place finishers Isaac Hampton, Ethan Ritchie, Brandon Smith and Price Pothier. Other place winners from the state finals include Dillon Le (sixth), Trae Frederick (third), Patrick Negra (fourth), Gavin Korkeakoski (fourth) and Cougar Friesen (fourth).

"We have a handful of kids that just missed the podium at the state tournament last year and they are hungry to get there this season," Russo said. "We also have a couple of ninth- and tenth-graders that are new to our program that we think are going to make an impact right away."PMG FILE PHOTO - Last spring's Tiger team decimated the competition, racking up a school record 490.5 points to outdistance second-place Sprague and third-place Roseburg.

Given the turmoil laid onto sports by the pandemic, gauging the complexion of the Pacific Conference's wrestling teams is a tall order.

"I honestly am not sure what the league is going to look like this year," Russo said. "Last year was such a strange and awkward season that it's hard to really know what's going on anywhere else. I think Sherwood is always solid and McMinnville had a fair number of young kids last year. Century also has a couple of outstanding kids coming back."

The programs that are historically good, Russo opined, will likely scuffle for the state title again this season.

"As far as the state in (Class) 6A, I think it will be the usual suspects (Roseburg, Sprague, Mountain View, West Linn and maybe Grants Pass)," he said. "Again, it was hard to get a gauge on where everyone was with the type of season that we had last year, so it is almost like going in blind … which is fine. We'd much rather focus on getting ourselves ready and not really looking at others, yet."

The Tigers are at a slight disadvantage, as the pandemic cancelled a lot of the tournaments many wrestlers would attend after the state championships last spring.

"We were very limited in what we did last season," Russo said. "Our state tournament happened in late June, so that didn't leave much for summer competition. We did have a handful of kids compete in Fargo, North Dakota, at the national tournament."

Hudson Davis earned All-American honors at that tournament, Russo added.

Ultimately, Russo added, how well the Tigers do this season comes down to preparation.

"We are going to have to make sure that we are working to improve every day and making strides every time we compete," Russo explained. "Everyone is aware that we have the last two titles, but we also understand that none of that matters as we head into this year. We are going to have to earn everything we want."

The Tigers will kick off their Pacific Conference season on Dec. 15 in a dual meet versus McMinnville. Newberg will then venture to the Best of the West tournament on Dec. 17-18 in Pasco, Washington, before traveling to West Albany High School on Dec. 29-30 for the Northwest Duals.

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