LA GRANDE — On paper, the La Grande Tigers appear to have the best wrestling team in Class 4A and, one could argue, a team among the best in Oregon regardless of classification.
The Tigers were ranked No. 1 in the most recent OSAA 4A coaches poll, on Jan. 8, and since that poll came out have picked up dual victories against the three teams directly below them in the rankings — No. 4 Baker on Jan. 8 (61-7), No. 3 Tillamook on Jan. 18 (66-16) and No. 2 Sweet Home on Jan. 18 (45-19). Those last two duals came in the semifinals and finals of the Oregon Classic in Redmond, which LHS won for the first time.
Those dual wins also come against teams who finished No. 1 (Tillamook), No. 2 (Sweet Home) and No. 4 (Baker) in last year's OSAA state tournament. La Grande was right in there among them at third.
The team's success has extended beyond Oregon. The Tigers, who also dominated their home Muilenburg tournament in December, have top-10 finishes this in three major tournaments in the West — Tri-State in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho (ninth), the Sierra Nevada Classic in Reno (fifth) and the Rollie Lane Invite in Nampa, Idaho (sixth). At the most recent of those tournaments, Rollie Lane, they were the highest-ranked Oregon team and finished ahead of programs such as Crook County (ranked second in 5A) and Mountain View (ranked fourth in 6A). The only Oregon teams to finish higher than La Grande in a tournament were Crook County at Tri-State and Sprague (No. 3 in 6A) at Sierra Nevada. The Tigers have not yet wrestled in a tournament that includes Newberg (No. 1 in 6A), Roseburg (No. 2 in 6A) or Crescent Valley (No. 1 in 5A), but they will get an opportunity to Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at the Reser's Tournament of Champions in Hillsboro.
La Grande head coach Klel Carson said he believed the team, which in late February will be contending for its first state title since 1996, was capable of achieving the success it has had to this point in the season.
"These kids have worked really hard for a long time," Carson said. "They're receiving their rewards for the hard work they put in."
Carson said the group of wrestlers is a team that doesn't settle or rest on its laurels, even coming off a weekend when it won what he said many in Oregon consider the dual state championship at the Oregon Classic.
"That's kind of the nature of the kids and who they are," he said. "They're the kind of kids who don't want to settle for mediocrity. They know what it takes to be successful. They want to put in the work. They understand they gotta work hard. They've been successful in the past."
About 15 wrestlers on the team recently tasted the success of a state title, as they were members of the varsity football team's undefeated season and state championship run in November. The momentum carried into the wrestling season.
"Once you have success, it builds confidence," Carson said.
The team is among the deepest, if not the deepest Carson has coached in more than two decades with the program.
"This year the greatest strength is all of the kids (are) solid all the way through," he said. "There are not really any weak weights."
That strength, Carson said, will prove to be a major asset as the team nears the state tournament, which is Feb. 28-29 in Portland.
Even with the balance across the weight classes, one of the team's best assets is an upper weight group Carson said is the best he's coached, and it may be among the best ever in program history. The group includes last year's state champions Parker Robinson and Chris Woodworth, past state runners-up Nathan Reed and Spencer Gerst, and third-place finisher Gabe Shukle.
Carson said the top five weight classes, — 170 pounds to 285 pounds — "are the strongest we've had in my time for sure," Carson said, adding he's discussed with former LHS coach Verl Miller where this group ranks all-time. "Verl and I talked about it a lot. We can say for sure it's been a long time since we've had upper weights like that."
But with all the expectation surrounding the team, which has hopes of ending the 24-year championship drought, Carson said he has not addressed pursuing the title with the team.
"Never. I've never talked about that one time," he said. "All my talks (are) about being good people and good citizens. I try never to talk about, 'let's win a state title.'"
Instead, he pushes an ideal that will carry the wrestlers long after they step off the mat for the last time.
"At the end of the day no matter what happens in wrestling, they're great kids. They're going to be great people in our community," he said. "They're going to make a difference in the world."