Niemann, Choi take 1st in their weight divisions in thrilling championship showdowns
Two Philomath High wrestlers trying to break through to new heights in their final seasons on the mat pulled off memorable victories on Saturday to claim top honors at the Special District 2 Tournament in Florence.
Senior Blake Niemann finally turned around his fortunes against a longtime nemesis and senior Joseph Choi won in a thrilling “ultimate tiebreaker” match to provide the top highlights at the district meet hosted by Siuslaw.
Niemann, Choi, junior Ben Hernandez, senior Blaise Pindell, junior Chase Ringwald, junior Caleb Blackburn, freshman River Sandstrom and junior David Griffith all qualified for state, which is scheduled for Feb. 26 at Cascade High.
As a team, the Warriors finished third behind Sweet Home and Cascade.
Niemann’s victory at 126 pounds was significant in that he defeated Sweet Home’s Jacob Sieminski, a past state champion. Just a few weeks ago in a dual at Philomath, Sieminski took a 9-1 major decision over Niemann.
“He’s an opponent that we’ve gotten closer and closer (to) but he’s still pretty much dominated us over the years,” Woosley said.
Strategy played a key role in this victory. In an eventful first period, Niemann scored a takedown 27 seconds into the match. After Sieminski got a reversal and two-point nearfall, Niemann regained control and pulled off a reversal of his own for a 4-4 tie going into the second period.
“We knew that if we get in scrambled positions, he has a tendency to get a little too loose … especially if he’s beating you and working over leg ride defense and a few other things and we kind of beat him at that,” Woosley said. “But the biggest thing is we knew he’d come out shooting right away and we defended the first shot and he came in again and we countered it and actually took him down to start the match.”
Sieminski went up on points in the second period with a reversal and two-point nearfall. Heading into the third, Niemann trailed 8-4 on points.
“We chose down just because we had been close to scoring a defensive pin in the second round and that’s actually how we pinned him,” Woosley said. “We got in a position to turn our shoulder into him while he had us on a leg ride and Blake arched back and pinned him.”
The pin occurred with 1:09 left in the match and Woosley said the crowd went crazy. Woosley called Niemann’s win one of the most memorable moments of his coaching career.
“Blake Niemann — he’s a class act,” he said. “He’s been a fighter all of his life, so it was a pretty cool moment.”
Choi, meanwhile, was able to get the victory at 285 pounds for Philomath’s second individual title. Choi entered districts as the No. 1 seed with Cascade sophomore Teagen Allen as the No. 2 seed.
“We knew with the kid from Cascade that it would come down to those two — they’re just the best by far in our region,” Woosley said. “And man, the last match of the night, it was amazing. There was not a lot of scoring but those big boys were going.”
After a scoreless first period, Choi picked up a point on a stalling penalty in the second. In the third, Allen scored on an escape and the match went into overtime.
Allen scored first for a 2-1 lead but Choi picked up another point on penalty to tie it. Then in an ultimate tiebreaker situation, Choi chose down and scored an escape with 24 seconds left to win it, 3-2.
“If you choose top, you have to ride it out for 30 seconds and if you choose down, you have to score,” Woosley said. “We chose down because we were able to escape on him and we escaped right away. It was a pretty cool thing.”
Choi had won his first two matches of the day with pins in under a minute.
“Joe was pretty confident the whole day and so it was a good time,” Choi said.
Pindell reached the championship match at 170 pounds and was set to face nemesis Emmett Henderson, the top seed out of Junction City. Henderson had beaten Pindell twice over the past few weeks in bouts at the Mid-Valley Classic and during a Philomath home dual. This time around, however, the match didn’t materialize with Henderson winning on a medical forfeit.
Pindell was less than 100% at the tournament.
“He just wasn’t feeling right and we didn’t think it was worth it,” Woosley said. “It’s a common opponent and we have to be at our best and Blaise just wasn’t feeling up to it so we’ll take our chances at state with him.”
With the district runner-up, Pindell will likely be a No. 6 seed at state with how the brackets work, Woosley said. Henderson will be on the opposite side so if they meet again, it could be in the state finals.
At 120 pounds, Hernandez wrestled into the championship match before losing on a 5-0 decision to Sweet Home senior Kyle Watkins.
Watkins scored points on a takedown in the first and on a reversal in the second to build a 4-0 lead. In the third starting on bottom, he secured an escape for the final margin.
“We got beat on a takedown early and that’s about the difference in the match,” Woosley said. “We’re close, we need a couple of defenses to beat that kid and we can get that.”
Philomath had a bright spot at 106 pounds with the freshman Sandstrom. He lost in the semifinals to eventual champion Kyle Sieminski of Sweet Home and then took a real tough loss in consolations to Newport’s Victor Perez on a 5-3 sudden victory. Sandstrom regrouped to beat Baker for a second time and then thanks to an upset, he got an opportunity to qualify for state in a wrestle-back against Sweet Home sophomore Evan Ashcraft, who entered the tournament as the No. 3 seed.
Sandstrom dominated from the start with a 7-1 lead in the first period en route to a 13-2 major decision.
“It was his best wrestling of the year,” Woosley said. “Oh my goodness, he just beat him in all aspects of wrestling.”
Ringwald won three of four matches at 126 pounds and placed third with a 4-0 decision over Siuslaw junior and 3-seed Yoskar Delamora. Ringwald scored on a reversal in the second period and got two more in the third on a takedown 28 seconds in.
“Chase beat a really good kid from Siuslaw for third and fourth — a kid who’s been to state a couple of times,” Woosley said. “He wrestled about as good as he could.”
Blackburn placed third at 132 with three wins in four matches. In his final match, Blackburn took a 6-2 decision over Elmira junior William Walton. Blackburn led 2-1 after the first period and took control early in the third with a penalty point, escape and takedown.
“Caleb lost 4-2 in the semis to a really good Sweet Home kid — that kid’s going to be a four-time state champion,” Woosley said in reference to senior Mauro Michel.
Griffith qualified in the fourth spot at 152 pounds.
“David wrestled tough — got caught a couple of times,” Woosley said. “Nobody’s going to want to wrestle the No. 4 in our region. Depending on how he gets placed in the (state) bracket, he may damage some people.”
Woosley believes the team has a shot at a trophy at state, which would be top four.
“It’s still La Grande and Sweet Home battling it out and Tillamook’s right behind them,” Woosley said.
The state tournament brackets won’t be released until Feb. 20.
Among Philomath’s other results, junior Ty Olsen was fifth at 145, freshman Cameron McConnell placed fifth at 113 and freshman Lucas Bourguois was sixth at 145.
The state tournament on Feb. 26 will begin at 9 a.m. and is expected to continue late into the evening.