St. Helens wrestling ends with strong showing
The Monday after the Class 5A tournament, St. Helens wrestling coach Greg Gadbois made his way to the school's weight room, hoping for a small turnout, maybe a handful of diehards looking to work out the kinks and knots of a long season.
With freestyle season ahead, the wrestling grind never really ceases, but Gadbois would've understood should some of his stars elected to rest and recoup at home.
What he discovered wasn't so much a surprise as it was a reflection of where the Lions are as a program and where they're headed. About 15 grapplers met Gadbois outside the gym, ready to build on their state tournament experiences and start adding to their foundation for freestyle.
After making affirmative headway throughout a breakout 2018-19 campaign, Gadbois said the light has turned on for the Lions.
"I've seen an attitude change at St. Helens with those kids," Gadbois said. "They understand the work that needs to be put in, and I don't think they're afraid of it anymore. They embrace the work that it takes to be a good wrestler. To have all those kids come back ready to lift and practice a day after state was pretty incredible. I haven't seen that before with our program."
St. Helens placed 21st in the state tournament at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Feb. 23 with 18 points.
The main objective going to state, Gadbois said, was to have as many grapplers as possible win a match or two, particularly the younger wrestlers coming back into the fold next year.
With many first-time state qualifiers, the onus wasn't on placing so much as it was tasting state success for the first time. The plan, for the most part, went accordingly. Freshman 113-pounder Narcizo Garza, 170-pounder Ryan Burri and 285-pounder Ben Torres all won at least one state match. Sophomore 120-pounder Tristin Buchanan and 182-pounder Mavrick Rask each won two matches. Garza, Buchanan and Rask all reached the quarterfinals, where they were ousted by some of the field's best competition.
Dylan Scott and Rachawn Lee also took on top-rated foes.
"Having these guys reach their goal of making state was huge," Gadbois said. "As time goes on, we'll be a little bit more prepared for the big stage once we arrive."
In every weight class, St. Helens took on an opponent that ultimately made the finals in his bracket. It was a murderers' row.
Garza faced Chance Lamer of Crescent Valley in the quarters. Buchanan was bounced by Silverton's Kaden Kuenzi, who finished the season 41-0. Justin Garcia faced Crescent Valley's Legend Lamer, who some would argue was the best wrestler in the state regardless of class. And Gavin Schaer wrestled Gabe Whisenhunt of Crescent Valley, who went on to a first-place medal. Rask's two losses came to the 182-pound runner-up and third-place medalist.
For these Lion underclassmen slated to return to the roster next year, it was a first-hand account of what it's like to compete at the highest level.
"They understand what the top of the mountain feels like now," Gadbois said. "They understand the strength, ability and speed of someone who's in the finals. The knowledge of what that's like is something I can't give. It's something you can only see. Our kids saw that, and it made them even more hungry to reach that level next year."
Also this season, the Lions won the Tigard Invitational, took third three times at tournaments with 6A teams, won multiple head-to-head matchups at the Bob Beisell Dual Meet Tournament and took third at the Northwest Oregon Conference district tournament.
With seven state qualifiers coming back, including Rask, Garza and Buchanan, it might be time to start talking about top-10 state finishes as a team and possibly a district title down the line.
Since taking over St. Helens, Gadbois and his staff have continually emphasized building a love for the sport of wrestling in their individual grapplers. Five of the Lions have gone on to wrestle at the collegiate level over the last three years, with another on the way from a program that hasn't had a lot of state placers. At St. Helens, they're instilling joy in the struggle that ultimately leads to success. This season's achievements speak to that notion.
"It's a microcosm of what life is — you work really hard for years to be good at something," Gadbois said. "In our instant gratification society, wrestling is kind of an anomaly. You can be a non-athlete in our sport and still succeed, as long as you have a love for the work. That's what we're promoting."