Hood River Valley wrestling coach Mark Brown made a decision early in the season that his team was going to make the best of its move into the Intermountain Conference.
No team of Brown’s was going to lament a move into the state’s toughest league or mourn the loss of its seven seniors.
This Eagle team had no plans of backing down against the likes of Hermiston, Pendleton or Crook County. They were going to wrestle like never before and try to improve upon last season, the best in 4A school history.
In Brown’s words, the Eagles were “training to win a state title.”
Only a coach with horses like Tommy Owyen, Jacobe Krizman, Trent Shelton and Rocky Level would say something like that. But, lucky for Brown, he did have the power of four state-placers on his roster, and he rode them all the way to a 12th place finish at the Feb. 20-22 state meet.
“It was a great season,” said Brown. “Very successful. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in what you ‘should have done.’ But when I look back at the season as a whole, our guys did a heck of a job.”
Four more wrestlers — Nigel Bond, John Harvey, Nate Dethman and Zach Bohince — joined the aforementioned state placers and helped the Eagles capitalize on an enormously successful 2001-02, in which the team won the Mt. Hood Conference title.
The Eagles didn’t fare quite as well at the 2003 IMC district competition, settling for fourth place. But their season goal wasn’t to win the district as much as it was to compete at the state level.
“Getting to state is one thing,” Brown said, “but placing is something entirely different. “We want to do that every year with this program, and it’s going to take some sacrifices to help us stay at such a high level.”
Brown said that his team may have even earned a trophy if it weren’t for three brutal draws at district: 119, 160 and 275 pounds. Senior 119-pounder Josh Van Ek, a two-time state qualifier, ran into the most difficult test, having to compete against four wrestlers ranked in the top 10.
A disappointed Van Ek had to shrug off his state omission as luck of the draw, and realize that by placing fourth in the IMC, he was still among the state’s best. One week later, he watched as the top two places in the state came out of the IMC: Redmond’s Ryan Enoch and Hermiston’s Keith Carter.
Likewise, three of the district’s top heavyweights, including Owyen, placed in the top eight at state, and left little room for HRV junior Jorge Lujano to sneak in at district.
Jason DeHart suffered a similar fate at district in the 160-pound bracket, running up against state placers Jared Haller of Bend and Austin Shields of Crook County.
However, despite a few disappointments, the HRV wrestling team exceeded all expectations this season and proved to the state and to the IMC that they are here to stay.
“We run a pretty tough program here,” Brown said. “It takes a big commitment from every individual to help the team succeed, and the kids need to be ready to work when they sign up to wrestle.”
Brown will rely on his four seniors —Bond, DeHart, Lujano and Level — to help carry on the winning tradition in 2004. He said the team would also need leadership from its underclassmen like Bohince, the 103-pound district champion.
“Kids look up to winners,” Brown said. “Now that Zach has won a district title and reached the quarterfinals of state, he may have to step into a leadership role with the team.”
Other young wrestlers like Sal Ledezma, Leo Gonzalez, Jose Ramirez and Jayde Cannon will be asked to fill some holes in the varsity roster after the graduations of seven seniors: Krizman, Owyen, Dethman, Van Ek, Shelton, Harvey and Eric Avila.
“There is no spot on the team that is locked up,” Brown said. “We’ll give everyone a fair shot to crack the lineup, and everyone is going to have to work just as hard.”
Brown said he hopes to have a group of Eagle wrestlers come out this summer for Freestyle and Greco Roman.
He recognizes that the teams that are competing for a state title are committed year round, and for HRV to reach the level of schools like Crater, Roseburg and Newberg — the top three finishers at state — he needs for wrestling to become their priority.
“The biggest thing is to stay active and stay competitive,” Brown said. “The question we need to ask ourselves is, what are we willing to do between now and next year to prepare ourselves?”