‘The class of Oregon’

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By: Grant Lucas
The Bulletin

PORTLAND — Ed Burton has seen greatness. The 72-year-old has served as public-address announcer at the OSAA wrestling state championships for 30 years, during which time he has seen Burns rack up 10 straight Class 3A team titles, Lowell boast six individual champs on two separate occasions, and Culver place second or better as a team in the 2A/1A competition each of the last 10 years (including seven first-place finishes). Burton has witnessed his share of wrestling dominance — but nothing quite like Crook County.

“Crook County is the class of Oregon this year,” Burton said Saturday night at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. “Not just the class of 4A, they’re the class of Oregon. I don’t believe there’s a team around that could beat them.”

He said that even before the championship finals had begun.

Crook County, which claimed its second straight Class 4A title over the weekend with an all-classification state record of 405.5 points, showed a brand of dominance no Oregon high school team had ever displayed on the state championship stage.

“It’s pretty rare,” Burton said. “There will be another team like it, but not soon.”

Burton recalled the Russ Thurman era at Crook County, when Thurman, who passed away in 2012, coached the Cowboys to a long run of success that included state championships in 1969 and 1975 and runner-up finishes in 1967 and 1976.

“Back in the day … you could not beat a Crook County Cowboy,” Burton said. “From top to bottom, his kids were just dominant. And now it’s that way again.”

The Cowboys are back among Oregon’s wrestling elite.

“There’s been some teams, historically … there was a Roseburg team about three or four years ago that was probably their equal,” said Mountain View’s 18-year coach, Les Combs, referring to Roseburg’s run of five Class 6A state championships in six seasons from 2007 to 2012. “But who I actually (coached) against, bar none (Crook County is) the greatest team I’ve ever competed against.”

Last year, after 38 long years, Crook County reigned again as wrestling state champions, posting a point total of 290 that ranked as the third-highest total ever recorded at the state tourney and just 13 points off the top mark of 303 set by Hermiston in 2009. So at the beginning of the 2013-14 season, the number 303 was written on the whiteboard in the Crook County High wrestling room.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime group of athletes,” said Trevor Rasmussen, the Cowboys’ 220-pound winner. “We’ve been together since sixth grade, and we could always see this coming. We knew it would come eventually.”

Throughout the season, that “303” remained on that whiteboard as the Cowboys piled up wins at prestigious tournaments such as the North Bend Coast Classic, the Reser’s Tournament of Champions, and the 4A division of the Oregon Wrestling Classic. That point total — 303 — has stood as an overriding goal for Crook County as it placed fifth at the 110-team Reno Tournament of Champions and later put up an unheard-of 551.5 points at the Special District 2 regionals.

Finally, at the 4A state championships this past weekend, 303 became just another number, as the Cowboys piled up 405.5 points — more than the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers combined.

“We knew we were coming for the record, but, man, we just went way over it,” said Trayton Libolt, the 113-pound champion for Crook County. “We were just going to keep extending it to where nobody’s going to beat this. I don’t think anybody’s going to beat this record in my lifetime.”

Crook County qualified 23 wrestlers for the state championships. Twenty went on to place (top six), 11 were finalists, and five took home individual titles — one off the state record for a single team and a feat that only five other high school wrestling programs in Oregon have ever achieved.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime kind of team,” said Crook County senior Tyler Berger, a transfer from Hermiston who became a four-time individual champ by winning the 152-pound bracket Saturday night. “Nobody’s going to beat this record that we put up. It’s a magical kind of thing that hasn’t been done before and won’t be done again. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing — team, coaches, everything. It’s top-quality.”

Other Central Oregon programs have begun reaping the rewards of having a highly successful foe.

“They’re elite, and I’ll never, ever take that away from them,” said Combs, whose team placed seventh in the 5A tourney, the best state finish ever for Mountain View. “Everything east of the mountains, every single town, wrestling is important. And wrestling hasn’t been important in Bend. In the last five years, it’s now become important. So yes, we are better because they’re great.”

Nationally, the closest mark I found that compares to Crook County’s is 401 points, put up by Blair Academy (New Jersey) at the 2001 National Prep School Wrestling Championships. According to InterMat, a wrestling website that ranks high school wrestlers and wrestling teams nationally, Blair is currently the No. 1 high school team in the nation, while the Cowboys are No. 39.

“We’re Prineville, Oregon,” Crook County coach Jake Huffman said. “Prineville’s a little Podunk town with 700 kids in the school. And we don’t care. We just go about our business and be the best we can be, and we go out and beat people that we shouldn’t.”

The emphasis is not on what was accomplished over the weekend, but rather on how it was accomplished. Huffman pointed out the intelligence and mindfulness of each of his wrestlers, as well as their noticeable, almost tangible, desire to win.

Berger called the Cowboys’ program a family, one with an unparalleled coaching staff and backed by an incomparable community.

“That’s the most special thing about it,” Berger said. “It’s a wrestling community. They know and love the sport. There’s not many places around here like that.”

“I couldn’t be more honored to be on this team,” Libolt added. “It’s so special. I’ve never seen a team like this before. We all love each other. We’re just brothers. We all joke around and know when to get serious, pick each other up, tell each other when something’s wrong. We’re like a family, and that’s why this team is so good.”

The Cowboys are the undisputed champs of Class 4A. By at least one measure — in the record books — they are the top high school wrestling team ever in Oregon.

“Memories fade, but this feeling, I’ll never forget this feeling,” Berger said Saturday night while still catching his breath after his championship match. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It’s going to be a definite mile-marker in my career in wrestling.”

“Success breeds success,” said Huffman, the Cowboys’ sixth-year head coach. “Being here and putting on this display will only build excitement in our community and continue the tradition. We have a lot to work for next year if we want to keep improving.”

The Crook County coach adds: “The record is now 406.”

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