Ben Hernandez, Blake Niemann
Junior Ben Hernandez and senior Blake Niemann, seen here working out in practice earlier this week, are among the team's top returnees this season. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath High School’s wrestling program experienced a level of success that hadn’t been seen in several years with three individual champions and a fourth-place finish at the Oregon Wrestling Association’s 4A tournament this past June up at Cascade High School.

Heading into this season, the team will head right back to Cascade for Saturday’s Perry Burlison Tournament. Senior Blaise Pindell and junior Ben Hernandez are Philomath’s returning state champions.

“They’re ready to deal with the target that’s on them … they are very, very ready,” Woosley said. “They wrestle a little bit in the offseason as well, even though we were just done wrestling in June. They both came in lighter than I thought, pretty close to the same weight — they’ll be hard to beat.”

Senior Blake Niemann is another state medal winner back on the mat this season. Niemann won four of six matches and placed fourth in the 4A meet.

Woosley is also high on other returnees from last season’s varsity lineup, such as junior David Griffith, senior Joseph Choi and junior Caleb Blackburn. Those three wrestlers missed out on medals but did gain the experience of competing in a state tournament. In fact, each won at least one bout. Junior Chase Ringwald is another returnee with good experience.

“We have not gone over as much technique; it’s just live wrestling because they’re an experienced group,” Woosley said about the roster, which features a unique combination of athletes. “You throw in a little here and there. It helps the older kids to usually put them with an inexperienced guy … it helps them teach the move.”

Woosley expects three varsity regulars to be missing from the season-opening event Saturday at Cascade, which is scheduled for a 9:30 a.m. start. Choi isn’t going to make weight, the coach said he’s about a half-pound over; Pindell is working through an injury he sustained in practice; and Blackburn is also recovering from an injury.

Woosley anticipates having a stronger tournament team this season although the roster is thin at 195 and 220.

“We’re going to be a very deep dual team,” Woosley said. “We might have a void in the top but we can stretch everyone out and we’re going to be pretty experienced in there — like eight pretty quality kids. And tournaments, finally, if we’re healthy and all wrestling, we should do very, very well.”

A Class 4A preseason coaches poll published by OSAAtoday shows Philomath ranked No. 5 behind Sweet Home — a unanimous No. 1 — La Grande, Tillamook and Estacada.

“It’ll be tough but it’s wrestling, you never know,” Woosley said. “I’m really wanting to get a team trophy, which is top four, but we’ll see.”

For Philomath in the low weights, freshman River Sandstrom appears as though he could step right into varsity action after several years in the youth wrestling system. Cameron McConnell is another freshman with some mat experience who could also challenge for time on the varsity mat. Both exhibit nice athleticism and give the coaching staff options at 106.

Woosley said he doesn’t really have a 113-pounder, so either Sandstrom or McConnell could move up to that weight division in duals.

Hernandez was a state champion at 113 last season and could still be a possibility at that weight this season. But heading in, Hernandez is sitting at 120 along with freshman Payton Humphrey.

The Warriors then have several wrestlers that could step in at 125 or 132, including junior Ringwald and Blackburn. Isaac Harris, a junior, is back in the program after not competing last season. From among the newcomers, Woosley mentioned freshman Walker Westbrook and junior Vincent DeMasi.

At 138, the Warriors have freshman Colton Faust, freshman Lucas Bourguois and sophomore Gradin Fairbanks. Ty Olsen, a junior, appears to be penciled in at 145. He’s back with the Warriors after two years with Dallas and he brings experience to the mat.

Woosley’s group at 152 to 160 includes Griffith, freshman Ryder Zitlau, freshman JJ Lewis and senior James Bowers. Lewis is the fourth boy out of his family to compete in Woosley’s program and Bowers is in his first year with the Warriors after competing in the past with South Albany.

Sophomore Jared Gerding is looking like 170 with Pindell currently floating in the 170 to 182 range. Pindell won his state championship last season at 170.

“We’ll see where he lands — I’m not too worried about him cutting weight,” Woosley said. “He’s always very fit and conditioned … we may wrestle him up a couple of weights if there’s better competition and we’ll go from there.”

Woosley said the team is weak at 195 and 220. Jacob Hamlet, a sophomore who is new to the program, is working to be able to compete at 220, the coach said. And then at heavyweight, Choi returns.

Assistant coach James Kohn illustrates a move on Joseph Choi during practice this week. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

It’s been more than a decade since Philomath High’s wrestling program has seen so many students on the roster. As of Friday, the team was 23 strong.

“I think the success brought kids in but the thing is, most of them are freshmen and sophomores,” Woosley said. “And I don’t know if this has anything to do with it … but we’ve dropped our pay-to-play, so maybe that creates a little more interest to try it out.”

Philomath has two athletes in the girls’ program. Taylor Mussati is back with the Warriors as a junior after a successful freshman season. Mussati attended classes for her sophomore year at Alsea. Sophomore Ellie Morton is a newcomer to the wrestling program.

“They’re at the same weight so they’re good practice partners,” Woosley said.

Girls wrestling has been “off the charts crazy” in terms of participation across the state, Woosley added, with numbers like 17 at Sweet Home and 13 at Cascade. More tournament opportunities for female wrestlers appear to be the result.

For the schedule, Philomath has a few new tournaments to participate in, including the Grants Pass Winter Kickoff on Dec. 17-18 in the southern part of the state.

“That one’s got I think 36 teams and 10 of them are from California,” Woosley said. “So that’s a two-day tournament. It’s going to be fun.”

The Benton County Championships return this season and Philomath will serve as the host for the Dec. 22 event. Joining the Warriors will be wrestlers from Corvallis, Crescent Valley, Santiam Christian, Monroe and Alsea.

One of the most challenging tournaments of the season will be the Northwest Duals, a two-day event set for Dec. 29-30 at the Linn County Fairgrounds. Another will be the Mid-Valley Classic on Jan. 28 at South Albany. Fans may remember that Philomath hosted that tournament in January 2020 after South Albany’s gymnasium sustained damage in a December 2019 fire.

The high school will host its annual youth tournament on Dec. 11, a huge event that serves as a fundraiser for the program. has no paywall and to keep it that way, we rely on voluntary memberships. If you’re already a member, thank you for contributing. To join our community as a member or to make a one-time contribution, please CLICK HERE.