It would have been easy to assume the Hermiston Bulldogs would win its fourth-straight team title. Already on campus were returning state champions and future state champions arriving.
The path seemed laid before the first steps were taken. However, Bulldog grapplers are quickly learning that the name on the singlet is unimportant, ultimately.
“We’re getting beat in these tougher tournaments not necessarily because teams are better than us, or we’re not doing the right things in the wrestling room, we just, as a program, as a high school team, we gotta honestly just toughen up,” first-year coach Kyle Larson said. “Teams aren’t beating us because they’re better at wrestling. They’re not beating us because we’re not loading the bus and we’re leaving kids home. We got the kids at the tournaments who can win the tournaments, we just need to toughen up.”
It hasn’t been a bad season. In fact, it’s been a pretty good one. Hermiston walked away champions of the Oregon Wrestling Classic two weeks ago, won the Gut Check Challenge a week prior, finished second in at Tri-State last month, finished second at the Reser’s Tournament of Champions last weekend, and finished fifth at The Clash, a nationally recognized dual tournament in Minnesota.
Of the five tournaments, three have been individual-centric and Hermiston has seen six Bulldogs win brackets and had 18 grapplers place. Hermiston had seven placers at both the Tournament of Champions and Tri-State.
It’s clear that Hermiston has as much talent in its wrestling room as any state champion program in the last eight years. The results have been there, for the most part. But, Larson isn’t satisfied with simply being good. He wants to be great, the best.
“I don’t know, maybe I’m just never satisfied,” he said. “I just always want more. Again, we’re working on positions we’ve been getting beat at in individual matches or as a whole. I don’t think we’re behind schedule by any means. Going into the district tournament, we’re gonna put 28 guys on the mat who want to be there, who are gonna fight.”
Obviously led by senior standout and future Iowa State Cyclone Sam Colbray, who has amassed a sparkling record of 27-1, Hermiston isn’t hurting for more talent. Senior 182-pounder Bob Coleman, who is 27-2 with a win over previously undefeated Tyler Self to win Reser’s, has been chasing Colbray all year. Coleman took third at Tri-State and first at Gut Check. Bursting onto the scene this season has been 152-pounder Valen Wyse, who holds a mark of 25-4 and won his first bracket at Reser’s. He finished third at Gut Check and didn’t place at Tri-State.
Larson, though, made a special point about 145-pound junior CJ Hendon. Hendon didn’t qualify for last year’s state tournament, but he’s shown this season he can be one of the better wrestlers in the bracket at 145 pounds.
His best finish in a tournament this season is 4th at Tri-State, but Larson feels as if Hendon is tantalizingly close to fulfilling the potential the first-year coach sees in the junior.
“Any given weekend CJ’s the toughest guy int he tournament,” Larson said. “Now, if CJ thinks that, that’s a different story. He’s not getting beat because guys are better than him.”
Larson also praised the efforts of sophomore heavy weight Beau Blake, who, as a sophomore, is wrestling 18- and sometimes 19-year-olds as a 10th-grader. He placed for the first time this season at Reser’s.
The pieces are there, it’s just a matter of getting them oriented and fitted correctly. With guys like Colbray, Coleman, Wyse, Blake, Hendon Andy Wagner, Liam Tarvin and more, and with a dual win over last year’s team runners-up Hillsboro, Hermiston appears to carefully picking its way down the championship path knowing teams are coming for them.
“When we enter a tournament, we’re putting our best guys out there,” Larson said. “In my opinion, we have the best team in the 5A (division) to do that. Now does that mean we’re gonna step out there that day and do our job and do what we’re supposed to do? And, there’s a lot of time between now and then. Guys get hurt. Tons of things, grades, academics. The only way we’re not gonna win the state title is if we do not load the bus. As long as our guys get there, we’re doing the right things, we train hard, we meet expectations in the practice room, yeah, I think we’re the best 5A team in the state.”