Cougars dominate 18-team field to win eighth small-college duals title in 12 seasons.

COURTEY PHOTO - Clackamas Community College's wrestling team defeated top-ranked Western Wyoming 31-9 in Friday's championship final of the NJCAA Coaches Duals tournament at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College in Miami, Okla., clinching their eighth duals tournament title in 12 seasons.Clackamas Community College wrestlers Romeo Manue and Kyle Richards each won by fall to highlight the Cougars' 31-9 victory over top-ranked Western Wyoming in the Jan. 14 championship finals of the NJCAA Coaches Duals at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College in Miami, Okla.

Clackamas' Michael Gasper won by major decision, and Marckis Branford, Victor Jacinto, Justin Mejia, Alex Ramirez, and Steele Starren each won by decision to help the three-time defending national champion Cougars clinch their eighth NJCAA duals tournament title in 12 seasons.

"These guys stepped up," Clackamas coach Josh Rhoden said. "It was pretty amazing to watch them. They came out serious right away, they didn't lose a match in the first two rounds, and we were wrestling different lineups.

"It wasn't like we just put all our studs out there and said, 'All right, go ahead.' I mean, we were mixing it up and they went out and handled their business."

The No. 3-ranked Cougars of Oregon City opened the 18-team tournament with a 57-0 rout over No. 12 Triton College of Illinois, winning seven of the 10 bouts with pins.

Clackamas then used four more pins and rolled to a 49-0 romp over No. 25 Northeastern Junior College of Colorado in the quarterfinals.

In the semifinals, Clackamas' Micah Worthington won by first-round fall at 141, Ramirez won by major decision at 157, and Isaac Lopez (133), Ramtin Yazdani (184), Gasper (197), Jacinto (149), and Starren (165) each won by decision, pacing the Cougars to a 24-11 victory over No. 10 Iowa Central.

The Iowa Central victory came with a price — knee injuries to Nic Aguilar at 125 and Dax Bennett at 174, leaving two significant holes in the Clackamas lineup heading into the final against Western Wyoming.

"I said, 'Look, we didn't come all this way to not try and win,'" said Rhoden, who didn't have anyone in his 14-man travel team to fill in at 125 and also was limited in what he could do at 174. "I said, 'We can bump some guys up or we can forfeit 174 straight up to them.'"

Trent Silva, the freshman from Windsor, Calif., who had been splitting time with Starren at 165, volunteered to step in for Bennett.

"Trent goes, 'Coach, bump me up. I've got it,'" Rhoden said. "And Trent's a 157-pounder, really, but he's wrestled 165. The Iowa Central kid is good and he's bigger than us, and that was part of it, but our guys loved it, because Trent was like, 'I've got you guys.'

"You need that a little bit where guys come together, and they get serious about wanting to win for something bigger than themselves."

After spotting Western Wyoming a 6-0 lead with a forfeit at 125, the Cougars won the next five bouts by decision — Mejia winning 6-4 at 133, Branford winning 13-7 at 141, Jacinto winning 9-3 at 149, Ramirez winning 4-1 at 157, and Starred winning 7-2 at 165, giving Clackamas a 15-6 lead.

Western Wyoming's Christian Smoot won 9-3 over Silva at 174, but that was the last tournament highlight for the Mustangs of Rock Springs.

Clackamas finished strong with Manue winning by first-round pin at 184, Gasper winning by an 11-3 major decision at 197, and Richards winning by first-round fall at heavyweight.

In four matches, the Cougars finished with a combined record of 35-5 with 14 pins, three technical falls, six major decisions, 11 decisions, and one forfeit.

"It's fun for the guys because it's always a fresh group of guys and it's always cool to see the new guys, like how they experience it," Rhoden said. "And a lot of them, it's like, 'This is exactly why I came here.' And that's rewarding.

"Winning never gets old, it just doesn't. Not that that's what it's all about. But, gosh, we've found a lot of ways to win, and its different kids and different groups. These guys are really good kids … and we like the heck out of 'em, so it's been pretty fun."

With Covid-related issues continuing to present problems throughout college athletics, Rhoden said the Cougars may cancel the final two events on their regular-season schedule — the Jan. 28 dual against Simon Fraser University and the Jan. 29 Clackamas Open tournament — and turn their attention to the Feb. 5 West Regional championships in Roseburg, which were originally scheduled for Feb. 12.

"We could use a few more matches at a couple of weights, but … I just don't want anybody to get exposed (to Covid) that last weekend in January and then be out the next week," Rhoden said. "We'll probably do something in our group where we'll have some officials come in, get a weigh-in, and wrestle some matches. We have some weights that are pretty competitive, so we have some things to figure out."

The NJCAA National Championship tournament is scheduled for March 4-5 in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Rhoden said Friday's performance was another positive step in the Cougars' season-long quest for a fourth consecutive national title.

"This was a pretty galvanizing event for us," Rhoden said. "We got out of it what we needed to, I think. Outside of the two injuries — and, hopefully, they're not too serious — the guys wrestled really well, and they've been super-focused.

"Their practices the last 10 days, we were saying, 'Man, they look pretty good.' And sometimes, you know, it's hard to tell in practice. But then they got here and, I'll be darned, they looked really focused and they looked pretty damned good."

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