There are some changes to keep an eye on for the Eastern Oregon men’s wrestling team as it enters Year 2 this fall.
But none of them are bad.
The Mountaineers will be taking to the mat with far fewer wrestlers — just 22 as opposed to starting the 2016-17 campaign with around 40. Additionally, just six of those are returners from last season’s squad.
But Mhar Caballa, one of the returners, believes the roster this fall is full of talent, and said the coaching staff “brought in the right people.”
“I feel like it’s more of a pro (having lower numbers) because the people we have are more bought in than last year,” Caballa said “They all have a better attitude. We have (high) dreams and goals.”
Head coach Dustyn Azure said part of the reason for the high numbers last year was that, with him taking over as coach late in the recruiting process, he set out to bring in “anyone who wanted to try continuing to wrestle at the college level.”
With a full year to recruit, Azure said the staff could be more selective in who it looked at this fall.
“They’re a great working group of kids that we’re really excited to work with,” the second-year coach said. “They put in the work in the offseason. They know what we expect out of them, and they have high expectations for themselves.”
While several of the grapplers who came on a year ago didn’t stay around, Azure said he likes the team he’s got, both in the returners and the newcomers.
“The crew that we have right now, this is a group of guys who are dedicated. They know what it takes to be at the next level,” he said.
That includes Caballa and Eric Fan, both of whom competed at the national tournament for the Mountaineers in 2016-17.
“They’re coming in and they’re setting the bar high,” Azure said of Caballa and Fan.
EOU also has some experience in the wrestlers new to the program. Drake Randall is a transfer from Montana St. Northern — Azure’s old school — who has been to the national stage.
“He’s a two time national qualifier. He knows what it takes to get to that next level,” Azure said of Randall.
Also among the pick-ups for EOU are Blake McNall, a transfer from Clackamas Community College, and Hans and A.J. Rockwell from Boardman.
A.J. Rockwell, a 3A state champion for Riverside as a senior and an All-American, was slated to go to Oregon State this fall before making a late switch to EOU.
So far, he’s liking what he’s seen.
“I see a team that’s willing to work together and work hard,” he said. “Everybody pushes each other. I don’t see anyone doubting our putting anyone down. Everyone picked each other up, which I enjoy. I believe a team aspect in an individual sport is still important.”
Azure said the focus with the team is to continue developing the individuals and the program. He believes, however, that there are athletes who could be contending for an All-American nod this season.
“I believe we’ve got four or five All-Americans in this group. We just have believe in ourselves, and we’ll be bringing home a trophy,” he said.
The EOU women opened some eyes after their first-year program took 15th at nationals and registered two All-Americans.
Now, they’re aiming higher.
One of Eastern’s All-Americans, Jessica DeHart, is among the returners this fall, and said the Mountaineers have some lofty expectations.
“For myself, I set my goals and goal for our team very high,” she said. “I feel like if we push everybody and make them believe in themselves as much as we believe, that we could go above top 10.”
The Mountaineers take the mat this season with a larger roster than in 2016-17 with 11 wrestlers. Assistant coach Ty Vinson said the bump in numbers means the team will be able to be more competitive in duals this fall.
“After last year, we knew which weights we needed to go after,” Vinson said. “In the offseason we had a good recruiting class. (We) really filled those gaps that we needed to.”
Vinson said he has high aspirations, too.
“We definitely want to be a top five team this year,” he said. “That’s a big jump, but with the crew that we have in here, i think we’re more than capable of that. For the most part, everyone’s buying in.”
Vinson said the returners are stepping up to help the incoming freshmen adjust to the rigors of college wrestling and college life.
“The leadership from the returners has been huge. Preseason is pretty brutal, but they know what to expect,” he said. “They’ve helped the incoming freshmen know what to expect in these workouts. Everyone’s responding to the pressure and to the intensity level. We’re seeing a big jump just from a year ago, and a lot of that is from our returners and their leadership.”
That’s been a major help to Leah Olsen, one of the seven newcomers to the roster.
“It’s extremely important. Sometimes a freshman will feel overwhelmed with everything going on,” she said. “The relationships you have with your teammates is extremely important so you can succeed. If you don’t have good relationship you’re going to fail.”
Olsen, a state champion and five-time All-American from Washington, is also has high expectations —to win a national title.
“That’s the only reason you should be in a sport is to win. If you’re there for any other reason you’re not going to win,” she said. “You’re only going to shoot as high as your goals.”
DeHart also has individual title hopes after taking eighth a year ago before a severe right shoulder injury kept her from potentially advancing further.
“It made me realize I could have been in the top three. To know that makes me set the goal (high) and I know I can be a national champion,” she said.
Lisa Megargee, Amber Pair and Cassidy Freeman are the other returners for EOU. Among the newcomers who should make an immediate impact are Madisen Bozovich and Alexis Cavero.
“Our expectations this year are just to keep improving and get that top five finish,” Vinson said.