Lions lean on depth, pins to to finish third against some of the Class 6A's top teams

PHOTO COURTESY: AMY GADBOIS - Narcizo Garza of St. Helens wrestles to first place in a Dec. 29 meet at Clatskanie.

Large scale, multiple day tournaments against big schools with brand names are benchmarks for wrestling programs trying to find their footing in the Class 5A classification.

Teams like Sunset, Forest Grove and Tualatin offer litmus tests to see just exactly where a given program is in its overall trajectory. And if St. Helens' showing at the Don York Invitational is any indication, the Lions aren't far away from being a district contender now and in the future.

Paced by standout performances from 220-pound Dylan Scott, 106-pounder Blake Gohlmann, 120-pound Narcizo Garcia, 126-pound Tristin Buchanan, amongst others, St. Helens finished third overall at Cleveland High School on Saturday. The Lions pulled off the strong showing because of its ever-growing depth. Despite not having a grappler in the finals and only three seniors in the lineup, St. Helens still heaped up wins in the consolation brackets and relied on its expanding roster on both days.

"We're still very young but those kids need to know they can compete at these bigger tournaments — this was a good test for them," St. Helens head coach Greg Gadbois said. "I think it gave a lot an eye-opening as to what they can accomplish. Our goal is districts, though. We want our confidence level, conditioning and skill level to peak at the same time at districts."

Gadbois said he and his staff are trying to bring back "the good old days" when St. Helens once sported one of the biggest squads in the state. The Lions took second in state in 1992 at the 3A level but hasn't won a district title since '98, a 20-year drought that hasn't deterred Gadbois, but lit a fire beneath the fourth-year head coach and his program.

"I enjoy seeing kids get better and seeing that lightbulb go off when they decide they're going to do the work," Gadbois said. "In the end, the kids are the ones who have to decide to do it. When they start to realize their potential and live up to it, that's fun."

This season has been a big step toward restoring that tradition. The Lions have 40 wrestlers on the roster with competitors at every weight class. And the youth program Gadbois implemented four years ago is close to bearing fruit. Gadbois estimates that St. Helens boasts about 80 or so kids coming through the pipeline — a far cry from the days when just 20 young tykes would take the mat. The hard work poured into the youth program will pay big dividends down the line as Gadbois and his assistants won't have to teach the basics when their pupils reach the high school level. At the youth level alone, St. Helens has 14 coaches on hand, not to mention eight more coaching up at the high school. Most of St. Helens' roster hits the weight room year-round and wrestles at a few select clubs in Portland. Plus, with the high school team taking a leadership role with their younger proteges, they can help instill a passion for a sport that's clearly growing in popularity around St. Helens.

"It's one big wrestling family out here right now," Gadbois said. "Wrestling hasn't been as popular in the past. It's a hard sport to do. It's physically and mentally taxing. But we're hoping more and more kids come out. Everything seems to be going in a positive direction."

Garza took third place overall in his bracket, reaching the semifinal bout where he lost by major decision, but battled back in the consolation bracket and beat Liberty's Tanner Santesson in the third place match by a 5-3 decision. The freshman's lone loss came at the hands of Liberty's Oscar Romero, one of the top-three 120 pounders in 6A.

Senior 160-pounder Rachawn Lee made the DYI quarterfinals and eventually finished fifth. Gohlmann wrestled at the junior varsity level before being called up for the tournament and took fifth as well, reaching the semifinals along the way. Freshman Malakie Gibney just started wrestling last year as an eighth grader, but he recorded three falls throughout the tournament and took sixth overall. Wrestlers who didn't place didn't give up the fight and still recorded pins that helped boost St. Helens' team total. Gadbois said only three of the Lions' 24 participants didn't bag a pin. Scott weighs 200 pounds, but wrestled "up" a weight class at 220 and held his own despite giving up a lot of poundage.

"He has a big heart," Gadbois said. "He goes out there and battles. The two pins he had for us were huge because you got two points for a pin. Take away half of our pins, we lose 30 points and we're nowhere near third."

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