The matted room above the basketball courts in Hermiston High’s gym resembled a minefield more than anything Thursday afternoon. The boys and girls on the wrestling team were getting loose before practice with an old fashion game of dodge ball, something Joey Gutierrez said was special.
“No, definitely not,” the senior said when asked if this occurs regularly.
The Bulldogs, and the Pendleton Buckaroos, are gearing up for the Class 5A Special District 4 tournament that will begin Friday and wrap up Saturday at Redmond High.
“The hays in the barn, there is nothing we can do to get better for tomorrow,” assistant wrestling coach Doug Tovey said as music blasts in the background and wrestlers are bobbing and weaving across the mats trying to avoid balls coming their way.
As head coach Kyle Larson was in Redmond for the seeding meeting, Tovey was wrapping things up in town before the team made the 200-mile trip south.
“We’ll warm up and the guys that don’t need to make weight are probably just going to warm up and go home,” Tovey said of the final day of preparation. “A few other guys just need a bigger workout to make weight, and we’ll be in good shape.”
The Hermiston wrestling team has been a dominant force in the OSAA since the early 2000’s, when Larson helped the Bulldogs earn their first-ever state title.
However, this season has been a unique one, Tovey adds. Instead of big names leading the way for Hermiston, the Bulldogs have had to work a bit harder to climb the ranks.
“The four years that I’ve been here, we’ve just had superstars after superstars,” senior Beau Blake said. “This year is the only one where we’ve had to work harder to get where we are.
“You go from winning, almost placing, at every tournament as a team to just trying to get into the top 10, but it’s brought our team together. It’s been a trial, but we’ve gotten through it.”
Hermiston finished tied for first place in the district last year with Redmond after placing 15 wrestlers and 14 in the top four to qualify for the state tournament. However, the Bulldogs returned only six of those district placers including two champions with senior Joey Gutierrez, who won at 182-pounds last year, and A.J. Tuia at 145 pounds. Blake, currently the No. 3-ranked heavyweight in the state, finished second last year and Ruben Madrigal (113) finished in third.
Gutierrez and Tuia will try to defend their district titles from the 2017 season, and Blake is hoping to improve on his second place finish from last season. However, it will be no easy task.
“AJ has the best kid in the state in our league,” Tovey said, “but I think he can win our district tournament and our state tournament. He started a little bit slow ... and it just takes a while to get rolling.”
Gutierrez holds the No. 1 seed for the tournament at 195, while Tuia is the No. 2 seed at 145.
“I think everybody is just ready to go into districts and see what they can show,” Gutierrez said. “We’ve been working all season and it’s finally coming to an end so everybody is ready to show how they’ve grown from beginning to end.”
Rounding out Hermiston’s seeds for the weekend are: Sean Stewart (220) No. 1 at 220 pounds, Ruben Madrigal (106), Alice Todryk (113) and Zach Kirkpatrick (160) all at No. 2, Blake (285), and Gage Shipley (120) at No. 3, and Trevor Wagner (152) and Jake Palmer (182) at No. 7.
A top-four finish for Todryk this weekend will make her one of the only girls to qualify for both the girls and boys state championship, as she already finished first in the 100-pound class at women’s high school state qualifier on Jan. 26. She has only wrestled at 113 twice this season, however both matches resulted in wins.
“I feel like I don’t have as much pressure on me, Todryk said. “It makes me not have to worry as much and I can go out there and just wrestler and not worry too much about qualifying or not qualifying.”
Across the county, the Pendleton Buckaroos have been putting together their hardest week of practice of the season. Following their dual loss to Hermiston on Feb. 1, head coach Fred Phillips said that his team needed to improve their mental toughness and start going into matches believing they can win, no matter the competition. Following Thursday night’s seeding meeting, Phillips says he is pleased with what he saw in practice.
“We’ve had a really good week of practice since then,” Phillips said. “I’m excited for tomorrow. I’m cautiously optimistic, but I’m excited now.”
Phillips also came away from the seeding meeting feeling ecstatic about the draws for his group of varsity wrestlers, calling it the best he can remember for his team in his 17-year tenure.
Junior Alex Rendon, the defending district champion at 132 pounds — earned the highest seeding of the group, drawing in at No. 2 in the 126-pound bracket behind No. 1 Beau Ohlson of Mountain View. Ohlson is the defending 113-pound district champion, and is a perfect 37-0 on the season.
Rounding out Pendleton’s seedings, Caleb Tremper (113) and Blake Davis (145) earned No. 3 spots, while Chris Chambers (126), Isaac Urbina (152), Aiden Patterson (160) and Aiden Henderson (195) all earned No. 4 seeds.
Drawing No. 5 seeds were Kirk Liscom (170) and Perry Markgraf (285), and coming in at No. 6 are Koby Jones (132) and Brendan Bedolla (138) — the latter of which, Phillips said, is a great draw because “Brendon easily could’ve been a No. 2, but didn’t win that argument.”
Overall in the district, there are seven returning champions from the 13 weight classes. That includes Pendleton’s Rendon and Hermiston’s duo of Gutierrez and Tuia, as well as Hood River Valley’s Ryan Zeller (106-pounds) and Jason Shaner (now 44-0 at 132 pounds), Mountain View’s Ohlson (113) and Redmond’s Jacob Curry (120).
Pendleton only has three returning district placers — Rendon, Davis, Henderson — but Phillips feels great about his team’s chances this weekend. The top four wrestlers in each weight class clinch a spot in the state tournament.
“We came out about as well as we could for our season, if that makes sense,” Phillips said. “We don’t have a lot of No. 1s, but we have a lot of kids in great spots to qualify for the state tournament.
“Now they just have to go out and do it. I’ve done my part, it’s their time now.”