COEUR d’ALENE — Three weeks ago, in a dual against Clackamas Community College in Oregon City, Ore., North Idaho College sophomore Cooper McCullough was pinned by Joel Romero.
McCullough didn’t hang his head following the loss.
He got back to work.
Sunday afternoon, that work paid off as McCullough pinned Romero in 4 minutes, 42 seconds to win the 157-pound championship at the West District Championships at Christianson Gymnasium.
“Basically we went into the match, and the last few weeks, with the mindset that I was going to have to out-train him,” McCullough said. “I was going to have to out-work him in each position, so I knew I was going to have to keep the pressure on him.”
“That kid pinned Cooper three weeks ago,” NIC interim coach Brandon Richardson said. “Since then, Cooper has came in early, stayed late, and he’s busted his back waiting for that match. To see that pay off — with my lack of head coaching experience — it’s big for me. And I know it’s big for him.”
It is the first regional title for McCullough, who did not compete at districts last year as another Cardinal wrestler earned the starting nod at his weight.
“It’s big for me,” McCullough said. “It’s not the end goal, but it’s heading in the right direction. It’s a pretty big deal. I’m really looking forward to the national tournament.”
The top three placers in each weight class qualified for the NJCAA Tournament, scheduled for March 1-2 at the Mid-American Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Five at-large berths were also selected by West District coaches following the tourney.
NIC, which qualified seven of a possible 10 to nationals, finished second to Clackamas in the team standings.
McCullough also received some post-match words of wisdom from former NIC coach Pat Whitcomb, who was fired in January after 22 years with the program following an investigation into violations of academic integrity — a claim Whitcomb denies. Whitcomb watched Sunday’s tourney from the bleachers.
“I’m happy he’s here,” McCullough said. “But he’s not where he should be. He should be right here beside us. After the match, he gave me a big hug and said ‘I knew you could do it, and I’m proud of you.’”
“Pat has a special place in their hearts, and I really think it meant a lot to the guys to have him here,” Richardson said. “It’s hard to tell what they’re feeling, but it was good. It wasn’t a distraction, but a really positive thing.”
Bryce Parson claimed the championship at 149 after Clackamas’ Marty Margolis injury defaulted.
“The last two weeks have been insane with the training,” Parson said. “The last couple of weeks, we’ve probably been in the best shape we’ve been as a team all year. I was really confident in my shape today. I wanted to wrestle in the finals, but the preparation was the same it is each week. My ultimate goal is to win a national title, and now it’s just one step closer to reaching that goal.”
Parson, from Lewiston High, wrestled as a freshman at Oregon State, took a hiatus from wrestling before transferring to NIC with the encouragement of Whitcomb and assistant Keri Stanley — who remains on administrative leave during the investigation — in the fall.
“He (Whitcomb) told me the same thing he always told me, which is ‘Good job, stud,’” Parson said. “It’s really special having him here, but Brandon has really stepped up and done a great job. We’re putting our noses down, just working, and continuing to work hard.”
Other NIC qualifiers for nationals were: Izaiah Duran (second at 165), Nicholas Hara (third at 133), Hunter Gregerson (third at 197), Connor Sullivan (third at 285) and Esco Walker (4th at 125; wild card).
Walker was seventh last year at nationals, earning All-American status.
Duran, who had been dealing with a back injury, defaulted in the 165-pound final.
“I was just trying to fight through for the team,” Duran said. “Brandon, he’s always been on my butt to go hard. I really hope North Idaho keeps him around, because he’s got a good thing going here right now.”
“The guys we’ve got going to nationals are a good group,” Richardson said. “We were hoping to get a few more through, but the guys we’ve got are a solid bunch.”
Clackamas won its sixth straight regional title with 196 points and eight regional champions. NIC had 143.5 points. Highline, missing four wrestlers who couldn’t get out of the Seattle area due to snow, finished fifth in the five-team tourney.
“It’s a really good region and going to determine the top five at the national tournament,” said Clackamas Josh Rhoden, who was named District Coach of the Year following the tournament. “We’re going to see that again at nationals, so you need to make sure your guys are ready to wrestle. Obviously, these guys wrestled well, competed hard and had fun. It’s hard this time of the year, and thankfully they did a great job.”
Zeth Brower of Clackamas, who won at 125, was named Most Outstanding Wrestler.
“When you go deep into the postseason, the harder you work, the more invested you are,” Richardson said. “Everybody at the national tournament has that thought in the back of their mind that if they lose, they can go on spring break. For these guys, when you put in the hours they do and train the way they do, it’s harder to accept defeat when you put in that amount of work. Clackamas is a super-talented team, and we’re not going to beat them with flashy stuff. We’re going to have to beat them with technique and training.”
TEAM SCORES — 1, Clackamas 196. 2, North Idaho 143.5. 3, Southwestern Oregon 123. 4, Umpqua 107. 5, Highline 101.
TOP 3 (PLUS WILD CARDS)
125 — Zeth Brower, Clackamas, p. Nathan Kiddoo, Umpqua, :38. 133 — Jason Shaner, Clackamas, d. Shandon Akeo, Highline, 11-7. 141 — Elijah Ozuna, Clackamas, p. Sawyer Myres, Umpqua, 2:39. 149 — Bryce Parson, NIC, d. Marty Margolis, Clackamas, by injury default. 157 — Cooper McCullough, NIC, p. Joel Romero, Clackamas, 4:42. 165 — Mason McDaniel, Clackamas, d. Izaiah Duran, NIC, by injury default. 174 — Trajan Hurd, Clackamas, p. Cole Hornbrook, Southwestern Oregon, 2:55. 184 — Trevor Senn, Clackamas, d. Quinn Simard, Southwestern Oregon, 7-2. 197 — Joey Daniel, Clackamas, d. Wyatt Westfall, Southwest Oregon, 4-3. 285 — Tommy Mommer, Clackamas, p. Adam Lamb, Umpqua, 3:13.
125 — Joel Avila, Southwestern Oregon, d. Esco Walker, North Idaho, by injury default. 133 — Nicholas Hara, NIC, p. Christian Balagso, Southwestern Oregon, 1:01. 141 — Joshua Franich, Highline, p. Hasaan Hawthorne, NIC, 4:25. 149 — Garrett Russell, Umpqua, d. AJ Lira, Southwestern Oregon, 3-2. 157 — Braydon Wright, Umpqua, p. Aaron Runion, Southwestern Oregon, 3:41. 165 — Kettner Fields, Highline, p. Justin Knight, Southwestern Oregon, 2:42. 174 — Conner Rosane, Highline, d. Traeger Abatti, NIC, 1-0. 184 — Ben Gore, Highline, d. Gottlieb Davis, Umpqua, 15-8. 197 — Hunter Gregerson, NIC, p. Brayden Schultz, Umpqua, 1:50. 285 — Connor Sullivan, NIC, d. Hunter Hart, Southwestern Oregon, 3-1.
125 — Esco Walker, North Idaho, d. Aaron Nakama, Highline, by forfeit. 133 — Christian Balagso, Southwestern Oregon, d. Johnny Maldonaldo, Umpqua, by rule (beat him earlier in tournament). 141 — Hasaan Hawthorne, North Idaho, d. Brandon Gibson, Southwestern Oregon, by rule. 149 — AJ Lira, Southwestern Oregon, d. Garrett Cheney, Highline, by forfeit. 157 — Aaron Runion, Southwestern Oregon, d. Gabriel Lopez, Highline, by forfeit. 165 — Justin Knight, Southwestern Oregon, d. Jesse Ramirez, Umpqua, by rule. 174 — Trager Abatti, North Idaho, d. Josh Hammers, Umpqua, by rule. 184 — Christian Grover, North Idaho, p. Gottlieb Davis, Umpqua, 1:41. 197 — Daniel Allen, Highline, p. Brayden Schultz, Umpqua, 2:23. 285 — Hunter Hart, Southwestern Oregon, d. Evan Barger, Highline, by forfeit.
WILD CARDS TO NATIONALS
125 — Esco Walker, North Idaho.
133 — Christian Balagso, Southwestern Oregon.
149 — AJ Lira, Southwestern Oregon.
197 — Daniel Allen, Highline.
285 — Hunter Hart, Southwestern Oregon.