Raiders' eyes on the prize

Mike Ritchey has spent the last 15 years of his life guiding one of the top NAIA wrestling programs in the country. In that time, he's learned to recognize the difference between a contender and a pretender.

And this year's Raiders, he believes, are contenders.

"There are about four teams that could walk away with this thing," Ritchey said, "and even though we're ranked sixth, I think we're one of those four teams."

The 53rd annual NAIA National Championships will be held Thursday through Saturday at Abe Lemons Arena in Oklahoma City, Okla. The Raiders have their sites set on the school's fifth national title and first since 2001 after placing second a year ago.

Southern Oregon enters the tournament with high hopes after claiming the West Qualifying Tournament two weeks ago. It certainly has the numbers to make a run at a team title — eight of 12 Raiders competing are ranked in the top 10 of their respective weight classes, including top-ranked 125-pound sophomore Mitchell Lofstedt, who's 38-6 with 22 pins. Also looking to make a splash for the Raiders at nationals are: fifth-ranked 141-pounder Kyle Wirkuty (25-7); sixth-ranked 133-pounder Brian Jacob (32-11); seventh-ranked 141-pounder Barry Johnson (10-4); seventh-ranked 157-pounder Tommie Hooper (16-9); seventh-ranked 184-pounder Chris Platt (10-3), the defending national champion; and eight-ranked heavyweight John Bates (18-12).

How many Raiders advance beyond the quarterfinals, where matches are worth seven points apiece (not counting bonus points awarded for falls and technical falls) will likely make or break their chances in the team race, Ritchey said.

"I think it's going to take about eight All-Americans," Ritchey said, noting that semifinalists earn honorable mention status.

The draws were not released by the NAIA as of Tuesday night, but typically, each weight class consists of a five-tier bracket, or about 32 wrestlers. That means it will take at least three wins to advance to the national semifinals in each weight class (last year, there was a pigtail round in the 125-pound weight class).

Several Raiders have the potential to do that, including a few that Ritchey believes could throw a wrench into the tournament with upsets.

Johnson and Jacob, the regional champ, both enter the tournament on a roll. Though Jacob is ranked sixth, Ritchey said "nobody really knows who he is.

"He's won 30 matches this year, and that's kind of a benchmark for us."

Ritchey added that just about everything has to go right in order for a team to claim the team title. To that end, the Raiders have already cleared at least one hurdle. SOU will enter the meet relatively healthy. Only 174-pounder Austin Vanderford (31-13) is nursing an injury worth noting — Vanderford, known for his aggressive style, has a sore elbow that could force him to wrestle more conservative this week.

As for the team's mental state, Ritchey has been impressed.

"I think they've got a quiet confidence about them," he said. "I'm trying to read them and that's the attitude that they had for the regional tournament. I think they have a belief in themselves.

"The young guys are hungry, and the veterans are veterans."

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