COOS BAY — A good portion of Marshfield’s wrestling team came up through the Team Bucs club program, including high school state champions Travis "Junior" Wittlake, AJ Lira and Kody Koumentis.
But there are others on Marshfield’s wrestling team that are relative newcomers to the sport, yet have opportunities to join the ranks of state champions recently turned out by the Pirate mat program.
Tyler Post joined wrestling based on a bet with a future coach in eighth grade. Frankie Harlow joined after coming to a practice at the behest of a friend as a freshman. Phillip Hernandez joined as a junior to make him a better football player. All are seeded for the Class 4A Special District 3 meet on Friday and Saturday at Hidden Valley High School in Grants Pass.
They all figure in Marshfield's hopes to earn a team title this week and another trophy at state next week in Portland.
“The way we got it figured, if we can get five in the state finals and three or four (more) to place third and fifth, we’ll be in,” Marshfield coach Travis Wittlake Sr. said.
As an eighth grader, Post wanted to run the ball during football season. His coaches, though, weren’t having any of it. One of those coaches was Travis Wittlake Sr., and Post, knowing he was the wrestling coach, said he would wrestle that winter if he was allowed to run the ball.
“He was pretty good at running the ball when we let him,” he remembered.
“I didn’t really think I’d be running the ball,” Post said. “But I did. So it was a win-win in all honesty.”
It was mostly a joke, Post said, but come winter people remembered the bet he made and he joined the wrestling team. He reverted back to basketball the next winter, but came back to the mat room for his sophomore season and hasn’t left.
Like Harlow and Hernandez, Post has had to learn things other guys had known for years. But Marshfield’s room has state champions and some potential or even likely title holders. It’s an advantageous place to start and probably contributes to the trio’s fast rise.
“Junior, Garret (Lefebvre), Willy (Jantzer), (Will) Forbes and even Kody have been helping me and teaching me how to better my wrestling game,” Post said. “It’s been really helpful and to see the success that I’ve been having this season, I’m not really surprised.”
Post started the season at 285 pounds, as coming off football season he was too far from the cutoff to make 220 initially. So he battled the big guys and discovered that he was, indeed, strong and only little adjustments here and there were needed.
He’s seeded second at 220 pounds for the regional meet and owns a 26-13 record.
“I kept my composure and still wrestled to my ability and I won matches at heavyweight,” Post said. “It’s really shown me that I can push people around at 220.”
Harlow came to wrestling looking for something to do and fell in love instantly.
A wiry 120-pound junior, Harlow is a gifted athlete who took to wrestling as quickly as he fell in love with it. While Junior Wittake was training for an international tournament, Harlow joined and trained and worked and learned.
His 39-12 record is impressive, but it’s the losses that show the greatest optimism. Last season, as a sophomore, Harlow was seven seconds from wrestling for a state championship, then lost to that same opponent this year in a similar situation.
He’s close to busting through for the Pirates this season to bring home that elusive blue trophy. Only two years ago Harlow started, and last year he placed sixth at his first state tournament.
“It was so exciting, I felt like I was the best in the world, pretty much when I came there,” Harlow said. “I think I got enough practice in and that I’ll be able to get it.”
On the bus to the first meet last year, Koumentis explained the rules of wrestling to Hernandez. He knew how many points you got for a takedown, but he didn’t know much else.
At his first tournament, he lost his first two matches and was unsure what to do next. One of those matches he didn’t know he was to wrestle until assistant coach Brad McKechnie came running and found him.
Only a year later, Hernandez is seeded fourth at heavyweight for the regional tournament, but with a new mentality. Whereas last year he was just excited to be there, this year he wants results.
“Heavyweight wrestling, anything can happen,” Hernandez said. “I really do think I can win regionals. If it’s between me and the one and two seeds, it’s really gonna be about who makes the least amount of mistakes. So I think I can do well there. Last year at state, I was really happy I won a match. That’s not gonna cut it for me this year.”
Marshfield will need all the points it can get in Portland, and will need a strong showing at Hidden Valley.
But there are other Pirates who have accomplishments to claim. Junior Wittlake, who is at 170 pounds this week, is unbeaten and looking for his fourth state title and enters hallowed territory if achieved. Janzter, who is 41-5 this year and wrestles at 145 pounds is looking to better his fifth-place finish from last year. Lefebvre, a 152-pounder sporting a 38-6 record; Lira, who wrestles at 138 pounds and is 32-5; and Koumentis, a 113-pounder with a 35-7 record, are all looking to repeat as champions.
All are seeded first this week and Jantzer has had an especially good season. Two of his losses came at the renowned Sierra Nevada Classic in December.
But because of short numbers, Marshfield is at a disadvantage for winning a team championship. Some schools will qualify two wrestlers in several weight classes and have both score points. So even if they don’t win all their matches, their combined score could be higher than one guy who did win all his matches.
Marshfield is in the latter situation, and, despite four champions and six total placers finished fourth last winter.
This year, Marshfield could take home six individual titles. That would go a long way to getting the Pirates that long-awaited team championship.
“There’s certainly pressure that we feel, but with what coach has been saying at practice, we’re the underdogs now,” Post said. “Nobody really expects us to do well at the state tournament, which I do not believe. We’re really fighting for that No. 1 spot this season.
“With all the individual success we’ve had, the state tournament is a tournament, after all. We’ll have really great success there once the tournament’s over.”
North Bend has two seeded wrestlers this week.
Grady Hampel, a senior at 182 with a 12-8 record, is seeded second at his weight and Coltyn Ringen, a 132-pound senior, is seeded third with a 19-6 mark.
There was some doubt about Ringen’s availability after colliding faces and needing stitches in his forehead. Those have been removed and he’s been practicing all week and will wrestle at regionals. He’ll wear a mask that came in the mail on Wednesday.
“He’s been fine in practice,” Bulldogs coach Garrett Caldwell said. “I don’t think that’s too big of an issue.”
The regional tournament includes the 12 schools in the Far West and Sklyine leagues.
The tournament begins at 4 p.m. Friday and picks up Saturday morning at 10 a.m. The matches to determine the state qualifiers begin at 5 p.m. Saturday.
Admission for the first two sessions is $5 for adults and $3 for students. The final session admission is $6 for adults and $4 for students. An all-tournament pass is $11 for adults and $7 for students.