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Lions are loaded with experienced, savvy district placers and state qualifiers

FILE PHOTO - St. Helens star wrestler Narcizo Garcia and the Lions hope to contend for some postseason hardware this season.

The positive energy buzzing around the St. Helens wrestling program is starting to reach a fever pitch.

The community is fully invested in the Lions' success, from the pre-kindergarten level through the best varsity grappler on the high school squad. Head coach Greg Gadbois has brought dependability and stability to a once rocky situation. He's created a winning program that's produced district champion-quality grapplers with high Class 5A state meet potential.

Last year St. Helens experienced a sort of breakthrough, sending multiple wrestlers to the state championship tournament, many of whom are back in the lineup this season. Confidence was built. Foundations were laid down.

The arrow is pointed skyward for St. Helens, not just for this season, but beyond. This year is the next step toward consistent greatness. Every week, each tournament, every practice is an opportunity to improve with an eye toward the postseason, where the Lions want to make their hay.

"The whole town is getting behind our wrestling program," Gadbois said. "We went through some real hectic times where we were exchanging coaches every year. But being here for four years, the kids, the coaches, the town knows that we're going to be there and be available for them. There's been a lot of hard work the past four years, but we've gotten to a really good place now in the community where everyone is excited for the wrestling season. Parents are excited. Teachers are excited. Our bus drivers are telling me they can wait for the season, so it's been fun."

FILE PHOTO - St. Helens standout wrestler Tristin Buchanan is chasing another big season on the mat. Stars such as Narcizo Garcia, Blake Gohlmann, Tristin Buchannan, Mavrick Rask, Ryan Burri and Dylan Scott are the sort of dedicated, die-hards that wrestle and train all year round. Buchanan and Garcia were both district finalists a year ago and both want another shot at the conference crown. Rask is a defending district champion. Burri has been to state twice and is seeking an even higher seed in his senior season. Of the nine state qualifiers last year, only two were seniors. And of the seven state returners, only two of those are seniors this season. Most of the top Lion standouts wrestle freestyle and Greco style, both of which emphasize more attacking movements on the mat, in the offseason. Gavin Schaer wrestled at the national level at 106 pounds as did Rask at 182 pounds. Every day during the summer, St. Helens had upwards of 25 kids in the mat room from the elementary age, middle school level and above. There isn't a bad apple in the group, either, which makes the coaching side of things much more enjoyable for Gadbois and his staff.

"We just have great quality kids in the program," Gadbois said. "They're good people. They're good wrestlers. I spend every day with these kids, so the quality of their character is a big deal."

Wrestling season tends to take a grueling physical toll on each grappler. Cutting weight saps strength and cuts into muscle. So, without the threat of constant weigh-ins, St. Helens attacks the weight room with a ruthless zeal in the summertime. Guys try to bulk up as much as possible and then transition to more CrossFit style workouts in the fall to build a sound cardiovascular base.

Gohlmann in particular reaped the rewards of that offseason hard work, winning the 113-pound bracket at Tillamook's loaded Werner Beef and Brew tournament last week. The Cheesemakers are the top-ranked team and defending state champion in 5A, Forest Grove is a force in 6A and Dayton is a big-time 3A program and the Lions were able to find success throughout. Garcia (132 pounds), Scott (220) and Rask (182) ended up taking third place overall.

A third of St. Helens' starting lineup is seniors, a third is composed of juniors and the final third is filled with sophomores and freshmen. There is a good blend of youth and experience with 48 kids on the roster between the boys and the girls' teams. The Northwest Oregon district is loaded as ever with Hillsboro, Scappoose and others at the top. The 5A level doesn't take a backseat to anybody either. But the Lions are goal-oriented from an individual perspective and if each solo star does well and achieves those ambitions, the team success comes. Health is important. Improvement is imperative.

"The regular season isn't a barometer as much as it is a testing ground for us," Gadbois said. "Our goals are to do well at districts and send guys to state. All of these other tournaments and duals are practice for that."

The Lions have eight girls on the women's team, most of whom are first-year freshmen wrestlers. They practice every day alongside the boys and should see marked progression throughout the year. Hannah Barber is the only senior on a team that's grown from just two members to eight in one season. Barber, who was ranked in the top-five in her 105-pound weight class won a few tournaments last year and will make some noise for the Lions.

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