Forrest Welk
The La Grande Observer

Tanner Owen has unfinished business in 2017.

The Elgin wrestler hadn’t played a sport until his freshman year, but now, the senior is clawing for a state title that he came close to winning last year.

“I’ve had time to better myself,” Owen said. “Mentally and skill level, I’ve tremendously improved. I’ve really put in a lot of work in the offseason for this year’s state championship. I just really want to take it this year.”

Owen reached that stage last year, facing Oakridge’s Cale Edmunds in the Class 2A/1A state semifinals at 170 pounds. The Elgin grappler fell just short, a 7-6 decision to the eventual state champion.

Owen said that experience was a tough pill to swallow. While he is itching to get over that hump this year, he has run into a few obstacles along the way.

Elgin football wasn’t kind to Owen this season. The three-sport athlete broke his pelvis midway through the football season. Owen called the injury a “freak accident” against Colton, Washington, on Sept. 30. He spent the rest of the fall season on the sideline.

The initial prognosis estimated Owen’s return would come in January at the earliest — if at all.

“At first, it was hard to just process it,” Owen said. “It took me awhile to get over it. I had to put my head down and overcome it. I told myself that I can’t let something little like this stop me from (being) who I am.”

Elgin wrestling coach Jason Lathrop said he wasn’t sure if his only senior grappler would be available for his final prep season, but he was later relieved at Owen’s quick recovery. It wasn’t the first time he had battled an injury. Owen tore ligaments in his left shoulder during his freshman year, but fought through, saying that it doesn’t bother him anymore.

It appears Owen has overcome yet another injury. He said he “got in a groove” to get back on the mat, and took things gingerly at first. Now, Owen said he feels 100 percent. That’s good news for Lathrop, who sees the Husky as a top 2A/1A competitor at 170 pounds.

“He’s got a lot of physical ability,” Lathrop said. “He’s got the quickness, strength, endurance — he’s got all of those physical tools. He’s a competitor. He’s out there trying to win.”

Lathrop expects Owen to be a top-4 athlete in his class at state. And while he is confident in the technical ability Owen possesses, mental hurdles are another challenge.

Lathrop sees Owen’s competitive edge as a double-edge sword. On one hand, the head coach appreciates Owen’s drive to win, but sometimes, he said that Owen dwells on losses for too long.

“(Owen) has to learn from losses and mistakes he makes, but not dwell on them so much that they cost him the next match,” Lathrop said. “That’s been a hard thing for him, but it’s getting better.”

Lathrop said that’s what happened at state last year. After suffering the close match against Edmunds, Owen fell, 18-4, to Lowell’s Kenny Lane in the semifinals of the consolation bracket.

Lathrop stressed that Owen has to overcome those negative emotions this year. So far, he and the rest of Elgin’s wrestlers have faced steep competition.

To open this season, Owen swept through three opponents with quick falls at the Enterprise Kickoff. A week later at La Grande, he lost a 4-3 decision to a Class 6A Lake Oswego wrestler, Marco Young.

Most recently, Owen faced mixed results at the John Rysdam Invitational on Dec. 16 and Dec. 17. On the first day, he was pinned by La Grande’s Elijah Livingston and Baker/Powder Valley’s Dylan Feldmeier.

The next day, he came back to claim third place at 170 with three wins by fall. However, Owen was on the wrong end of another match against Livingston.

Lathrop wants to see Owen take the next step in recovering from his losses as the season goes on.

“Wrestling is a lot like life,” Lathrop said. “If you get knocked down in life, sometimes you don’t have a lot of time to get back up.”

“I expected (Owen) to be farther along at this point in the season,” he said. “There’s no shame in losing to those (4A) guys. You got to look at it as an opportunity. You wrestle the best — that’s what you want. I thought he could have done a better job rebounding from those losses.”

At the same time, Lathrop said he has seen growth in Owen’s mental game. Lathrop is confident he can help Owen through a process he said has been a “work in progress.”

From Owen’s perspective, he’s ready to take what he’s learned and build for the rest of the winter.

“I learn from the mistakes more than anything,” Owen said. “Yeah, it sucks to lose here and there. But you never really learn anything from winning, so losing is what’s best for me at this point (in the season).”

As they look to 2017, Owen and Lathrop hope to turn those lessons into victories. More importantly to them, the potential payoff is a testament to work ethic.

“At the end of the day, I (want to) look in the mirror and know that I put in everything I could,” Owen said. “When I get my hand raised at the end of a match, I can look back and say that was all my hard work that paid off.”