Newberg coach Neil Russo had seen pretty much everything in wrestling, until Friday, when he took his reigning 6A champion Tigers to the Friday Night Lights outdoor dual-meet tournament at Redmond High School.
Like just about everyone else, Russo had never been part of an outdoor wrestling event.
“It started in the blistering sun and it ended in the cold under the lights,” Russo said. “It was about 40 degrees for the last round. I don't know that I've ever coached in sunglasses and sunscreen to a parka.”
The conditions weren't ideal – the mats became soft in the sun and were a bit uneven from being laid out on a grass field -- but wrestling teams are making the necessary adjustments to have a viable season.
“Everybody was wrestling on the same lumps and bumps,” Russo said. “I think everybody's in the same frame of mind that I am, that whatever it takes for these kids to have an opportunity to compete, we're willing to do it.”
Deep and talented Newberg dominated the eight-team event, rolling past Redmond 64-9, Mountain View 63-9, Crook County 74-0, Bend 60-15 and Ridgeview 63-6. That's the way it's been going so far this season for the Tigers, who also have handled Sweet Home, Glencoe and Century.
Newberg's lineup features junior Ayden Garver (145 pounds), who has won 6A titles at 113 and 126, and junior Charlie Evans (160), the 6A champion at 132 last year. Junior Nicky Olmstead (120) won the state title at 106 in 2019.
Senior Micah Worthington (138), sophomore Hudson Davis (195) and senior Connor O'Bryan (285) were third-place finishers at state in 2020. The Tigers also added junior Ethan Ritchie (126), a transfer from Sherwood who was the 6A runner-up at 106 last year, and a pair of dominant freshmen in Isaac Hampton (106) and Zack Keinonen (113).
Russo said he thinks it's as good a team as Newberg has ever had. Considering the Tigers have won 12 state championships – including seven under Tony Russo (1980-98), Neil's uncle – that's a bold statement.
“We might get some argument from my uncle,” said Neil Russo, the team's coach since 1999. “This may not be the best 14, but it is 100 percent the best 28 we've ever had, and maybe the best 28 I've ever seen. It's an embarrassment of riches in some way. We've had some great teams over the years, but this lineup, there are no holes. It's a complete team.”
Evans and Garver placed first and third, respectively, in a national tournament in Iowa last fall. Garver was third in a showcase event in Iowa this spring.
“They're as good as anyone in the country,” Russo said of Evans and Garver. “Ayden Garver is as talented a wrestler as I've ever seen. He is special. He and Charlie Evans are on a different level wrestling-wise and athletically.”
Hampton and Keinonen are proving themselves on the varsity level, beating two state-placers each.
“They're at least in the conversation of the two best ninth-graders in the state,” Russo said.
Newberg will get a good test June 9 when it squares off against Sprague, which finished fourth in the 6A tournament last year, in a dual meet at Corban University. The Tigers also are working on setting up a much-anticipated dual meet with two-time reigning 5A champion Crescent Valley.
“That's been the talk of the wrestling community for a couple years,” Russo said. “I think we're going to be able to make it happen.”
Russo said he is looking to challenge his front-line wrestlers.
“I'm going to work real hard to get them beat before the state tournament,” Russo said. “But I can get them beat right here in the room.”
Season-ending tournaments set
With no official OSAA state championships scheduled this season, Russo and coaches Steve Thorpe of Sweet Home and J.D. Alley of Culver have been instrumental in a push for season-ending showcase tournaments.
Each classification will have a tournament June 25-26. The sites will be Newberg (6A), Cottage Grove (5A), Cascade (4A), Redmond (3A) and Sweet Home (2A/1A). A season-ending girls event is scheduled for June 24 at Cottage Grove.
Wrestlers will qualify through district tournaments. The 6A brackets will increase from the usual 24 to 28, accommodating the top four from each district.
Perennial 2A/1A powerhouse Culver won the 19-team Culver Invitational on Saturday.
The Bulldogs scored 226.5 points to finish ahead of Ridgeview (172.5), Mazama (121) and Pine Eagle (101).
Culver got first-place performances from freshmen Aiden Guest (106) and Thadius Brown (120), sophomore Debren Sanabria (113) and senior Brody Piercy (126).
Ridgeview had three division winners in seniors Cole Jackson (220) and Logan Shenk (285) and junior Daniel Jaramillo (152).
Ridgeview's girls dominated the 21-team girls tournament, outscoring runner-up Madras 91-28. Arionna Day (124-134), Kira Gregory (136-143) and Brooke Leber (144-155) finished first for the Ravens.