Raiders seek first national title since 2001

He has one national title and two runner-up finishes under his belt, so Southern Oregon wrestling coach Mike Ritchey knows what it takes to win the big one.

And this year, he says, the race for the NAIA national championship may be so tight, it could come down to which team is able to rack up the most bonus points — extra points awarded for pins, technical falls and major decisions.

In other words, for the 12 Raiders who qualified for the meet — which runs today through Saturday at the Jacobson Exhibition Center in Des Moines, Iowa — a win by decision in the first round may not be good enough.

"We've got one focus here, and it's not about winning individual championships," said Ritchey, who's in his 16th season as head coach. "It's a team focus. If somebody goes down then somebody else has to step up. That's just what it takes."

Southern Oregon enters the meet ranked third nationally behind only top-ranked Grand View (Iowa) and No. 2 Campbellsville (Ky.), and ahead of No. 4 Great Falls (Mont.) and No. 5 Oklahoma City. Ritchey believes all five are legitimate title contenders, but says Grand View is the clear favorite after taking over the top spot in the polls — for the first time in school history — on Jan. 12 and holding it for the last month-and-a-half of the regular season.

If the individual rankings hold up, Ritchey says, Grand View will eventually pull away from the pack. "But," he was quick to add, "I kind of have an idea that some of our guys are underrated."

If that's true, the Raiders could make a strong push for title No. 5 — or No. 6, if you count the NWCA National Dual Meet championship in 2009 — because heading into nationals 10 Raiders are ranked in the top 10 in their respective weight classes and all 12 SOU qualifiers will be seeded.

"It could be good or it could be bad," Ritchey said. "Hopefully, we can get in that round and do some damage there, and we can win all those 12 first-round matches."

At least three Raiders, and possibly four, must do some serious damage throughout the tournament and advance to the championship round in order for Southern Oregon to have any chance at the team title. Based on the rankings, SOU's most serious title contenders are Mitchell Lofstedt at 125 pounds, Brock Gutches at 174, Austin Vanderford at 184 and Jimmy Eggemeyer at 149.

The top-ranked Lofstedt is as close to a shoe-in as is possible in a 32-man bracket, and for good reason. He placed second at 125 pounds as a freshman in 2009, won it all as a sophomore, took a year off to play in a rock band, then returned to the team and promptly manhandled nearly every wrestler he faced during the regular season. He's 34-2 with 22 pins — two shy of his own school record — and his two losses were to Division I wrestlers from Stanford and Oklahoma State.

Gutches (15-5) enters nationals ranked No. 3 after an impressive showing at the NAIA West Qualifying Tournament two weeks ago at Bob Riehm Arena. Gutches, who is 9-0 against NAIA opponents, won two decisions to advance to the West finals, then clinched the title by pinning Jared Miller of Montana-State Northern in 2 minutes, 15 seconds.

Vanderford is also ranked No. 3 in his weight class after securing the West qualifier, thanks to a championship-clinching decision, 8-3, over teammate and eighth-ranked 184-pounder Derek Rottenberg.

Eggemeyer, ranked fourth, is 27-8 after a 3-2 loss to No. 2-ranked Mike Vassar of Great Falls in the West final.

Several more Raiders also have the potential to advance to the quarterfinals and possibly beyond: seventh-ranked 157-pounder Dalton Urrutia, eighth-ranked 165-pounder Brian Lemmon, 10th-ranked 133-pounder Miguel Baltazar, 10th-ranked 141-pounder Kyle Wirkuty and 10th-ranked 165-pounder Derek Mestrovich. Unranked heavyweight Bubba Owens and 174-pounder Tyler Thomas will also be competing for SOU.

"I think this is a pretty solid tournament team," Ritchey said. "I think we proved that at regionals, and we've got guys that can score bonus points."

Teams receive two bonus points for every pin, a point-and-a-half for each technical fall and one for each major decision.

"If you can get a few extra points, it's like having a 13th guy in the tournament," Ritchey said.

Southern Oregon last won the team title in 2001, but came close in both 2009 and 2010, finishing as the runner-up both years.

Can the Raiders of 2012 ride their darkhorse status all the way to the team title the way that 2001 team did? Ritchey isn't counting them out.

"I like the comparisons," he said. "We've got some seniors that can lead the group, some young guys that are hungry and some in-between guys that need to prove themselves.

"We've had some great leadership all year and I think that will continue in this tournament."

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