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Lions are turning up their 'intensity' phase of the season, ready for big January

PMG FILE PHOTO - St. Helens junior star Mavrick Rask has started this season on a roll for the Lion wrestling team.

On Monday night, just two days before the wrestling season begins to intensify, St. Helens gathered together for a holiday party full of games, hearty food and exchanging of gifts.

The Lions had a heck of a 2019, one most certainly worth celebrating. St. Helens broke through with a great showing at the Northwest Oregon District tournament and sent nearly two handfuls of grapplers to the Class 5A state meet. The returners who reentered the lineup this winter came back with success and wins on their resumes. It was a season to be proud of, one that St. Helens championed collectively two days before the new year.

2020 could bring even more shine and acclaim to a program suddenly worthy of big expectations. January is an important month. St. Helens has a district dual meet every week and a tournament in three of the four weeks. As a result, the Lions have turned up their "intensity" phase of the season where practices get harder and conditioning is more demanding in order to keep working toward a late-February postseason peak. This where the cream rises to the top. Last year the best kids on the team such as Narcizo Garcia, Mavrick Rask and Tristin Buchanan separated themselves from the pack in the month before the postseason. They weren't afraid to dive in and fail and therefore flourished later on in the season.

"I don't want our team to hold anything back," St. Helens head coach Greg Gadbois said. "Every match is a chance to get better, win or lose. I'll take my kids losing some close matches if they're doing it in a way that improves themselves. That way, in the last month, we can really focus on where we need to be and what we need to do. We want our kids to after it hard and wherever the chips lie, that's what we got."

St. Helens is supporting and embracing this winning program. The town, Gadbois said, expects the Lions to be good, which they should be for years to come. Now, the challenge ahead is becoming great.

"We want to be a top-10 team in the state, and I think we're on the path to that," Gadbois said. "I hope we get it this year. We want sustained success, not just one or two years where we're good because we had a great group of kids in one grade and then we disappear. It's our job to get really good. That's what we're working on."

NWOC dual meets, in Gadbois' opinion, are important for promoting the sport in the community and the goodwill of team camaraderie. Instead of sitting in a day-long tournament for 12 hours, St. Helens fans can come out for a two-hour dual under the spotlight, scream, yell and cheer on their team. The crowd gets into it, the wrestlers are fully immersed and engaged from the sideline. Grapplers tend to go the extra mile when a raucous crowd is rooting for them from just beyond the mat. Few atmospheres are as entertaining as a dual that comes down to the last two weight classes or so. But the results aren't as significant as the Lions' performances at tournaments, which are more indicative of St. Helens' postseason tournament hopes.

"You don't get awards for what you do at dual meets, you get those for what you do at state both individually and as a team," Gadbois said. "Dual meets are great for wrestling. They get the crowd involved. It's a fun atmosphere, you're a team and can get behind each other for once. I love that stuff and we don't want to lose those."

Rask has continued his great run through the early section of the season. The Lion keeps beating some of the top-ranked wrestlers in the state regardless of classification. And, Rask can't seem to get enough of mat action. On Monday morning, Rask, Burri and two Lion assistants went after each for an hour before practice, beating on one another. This, after putting together a sort of sparring session for a couple of hours on Sunday. Burri has had a couple of good weeks of match time. Garza and Buchannan made the finals of the Liberty Invitational and won the Clatskanie Winter Classic on Dec. 28. Gavin Schaer took third Liberty and won at Clatskanie. Dylan Scott continues to progress. Garrett Cook has "improved a ton" after being brought up from the junior varsity level. This galaxy of stars is reliable, dependable and bankable when it comes to winning.

"He just continues to roll and improve," Gadbois said of Rask. "Those guys just keep getting better and better every week. I kind of take those guys for granted because they just do their thing every week. It's great to have them and see them get better."

St. Helens competes in the Don York Invitational on Jan. 3 and 4 at Cleveland High School and then hosts Wilsonville on Jan. 9 at 7 p.m.

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