PHS senior Joseph Choi reacts with a muscle flex after defeating Mazama senior Isaac Pena on a 9-2 decision in the third-place bout at 285. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

TURNER — It’s not easy in those first few minutes after losing in the state finals. Entire seasons, heck, entire high school careers, lead up to that moment in time. The goal is to win a championship and stand atop the medal stand as the best in their weight division for all of Class 4A. To come so close can be a difficult pill to swallow.

Philomath High School seniors Blake Niemann and Blaise Pindell both had to endure those outcomes at the Class 4A State Wrestling Championships Saturday at Cascade High School. Niemann came off the mat and caught his breath in a corner near the bleachers while talking to a coach. Within a couple of minutes, he was smiling and had accepted the fact that he had to settle for runner-up.

Pindell headed into the neighboring wrestling room after his final bout, collapsed onto the mat and reflected on what happened while chatting with a teammate — and it happened to be Niemann, who had gone through the same situation about an hour earlier.

That’s the way it is when it comes to athletics. There are sweet triumphs to enjoy but also stinging disappointments to work through. In the end, both Niemann and Pindell wore smiles on their faces with second-place medals hanging around their necks.

Along with third-place medal winners Ben Hernandez and Joseph Choi, and fifth-place medal winners David Griffith and Chase Ringwald, the Warriors had one of its best-ever state wrestling tournaments. Philomath placed a solid fourth behind La Grande, Sweet Home and Tillamook — the same top four from last season.

Thinking realistically about the competition, PHS coach Troy Woosley had the hope heading in that his squad would have a shot at the fourth-place trophy.

“That’s about as good as we were going to get, you know, with La Grande, Tillamook and Sweet Home all having 18, 19 wrestlers,” he said. “I like the fact that in the finals (medal rounds), we won most of the matches — except for firsts and seconds, but we took two thirds and two fifths. You’re not walking into them, you have to earn it.”

PHS wrestlers with team trophy
The Philomath High wrestling team earned the fourth-place trophy at state for the second straight season. From left, Chase Pindell, River Sandstrom, assistant coach James Kohn (back), Ben Hernandez, Blake Niemann, Blaise Pindell, assistant coach Joey Howell, Joseph Choi, David Griffith, assistant coach Jeremy French and head coach Troy Woosley. Not pictured: Caleb Blackburn. (Photo provided by Sal Hernandez)

Although Niemann and Pindell advanced into championship matches, you could say that Choi was the closest to earning the top prize. Wrestling in the 285-pound division, Choi took No. 1-seeded Jaden Martin, a senior from Baker, into overtime before losing on a 4-2 decision. Martin won on pins against every other opponent in the tournament on his way to winning the state title. Only Choi provided a challenge and he nearly beat him.

“I really didn’t expect to make it this far … I think it’s because I’ve been pushing myself harder in practice,” Choi, a senior, said. “I think if I had the right mentality, I could have possibly won state — I got really close to it.”

Choi, seeded No. 4, opened the tournament with a pin in 2:43 over Baker sophomore Russell Walden. In the quarterfinals, he beat fifth-seeded Isaac Pena, a senior from Mazama, on a 10-3 decision. That advanced him into the semifinal against Martin.

After a scoreless first period, Choi took a 1-0 lead with 1:35 left in the second on an escape. In the third period, Martin executed a reversal with 1:35 remaining to take a 2-1 lead. Choi tied it, however, with an escape to force the overtime. Martin got a takedown 17 seconds in to win it.

“He had a great last couple of weeks of the season and the best thing about it was he was confident — he was happy and smiling,” Woosley said. “He lost 40 pounds this year … he went from 295 to 255 and because of that, he got faster on his feet and just had confidence. And a heavyweight with confidence is hard to beat.”

Choi (29-6 record) regrouped to beat Banks freshman Luke Bigsby in the consolation semifinals on a pin in 1:52 and then beat Mazama’s Pena for a second time in the third-place match with a 9-2 decision. Incidentally, Choi had lost three straight times to Pena before defeating him twice at state.

Philomath senior Blaise Pindell, right, battles Junction City senior Emmett Henderson in the 170-pound championship match. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Pindell, seeded fifth, was matched up against rival Emmett Henderson, the No. 1 seed out of Junction City, in the 170 finale. Both seniors, the two wrestlers have been facing off against one another for years. Henderson has been able to maintain the upper hand in those previous matches.

“I’ve been trying not to obsess about him too much because I’ve lost to him and you usually dwell on your losses,” Pindell said. “I knew that if I wrestled my best match that I could probably beat almost anyone here — not to be arrogant.”

Pindell (35-4) said he worked with assistant coach Joey Howell on certain moves and strategy during the two weeks between regionals and districts for a possible matchup with Henderson.

Pindell opened with a takedown seconds into the bout for an early 2-0 lead but Henderson regrouped for a 3-2 advantage by the end of the period. In the second, Henderson scored with an escape and takedown for a commanding 6-2 lead going into the final two minutes.

Pindell didn’t back down and nearly pulled off the comeback. First, he got a takedown with 1:08 remaining to cut the deficit to 6-4. Henderson got an escape point before Pindell got another takedown with 38 seconds left to make it 7-6. Another escape point went to Henderson to put him up by two and Pindell wasn’t able to come up with another takedown in the remaining time.

In the earlier rounds, Pindell advanced on a first-round forfeit and on a pin over Tillamook senior Hayden Hammerl, the No. 3 seed, in the quarters. In the semifinals, Pindell pinned La Grande junior and No. 2 seed, Wyatt Livingston.

“I definitely had a couple of possibilities of it going downhill because of a couple of throws,” Pindell said about his earlier matches. “But I stayed calm and worked my way out of those and came back.”

Philomath senior Blake Niemann, right, faced a familiar foe in the 126-pound finale with another bout against Sweet Home junior Jacob Sieminski. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Niemann, seeded second, rolled past Hidden Valley senior Gabe Chavez in the first round and Tillamook junior Baird Hagerty in the quarterfinals — both on pins — before facing La Grande sophomore and No. 3 seed Tavian Kehr in the semis. In that bout, Niemann built a 6-0 lead before Kehr was able to score midway through the third period. Niemann ended up with a 7-2 decision to advance to the finals where a familiar foe would be waiting — Sweet Home’s Jacob Sieminski.

Niemann had beaten Sieminski two weeks earlier in the district championship but this time around, the Huskies junior was not going to be denied in what ended up as a 16-0 technical fall.

“I definitely woke up something inside of him,” Niemann said afterward. “But, I can always keep that one win at districts true to my heart.”

Niemann said he approached the bout in the same way that he did when he pinned Sieminski in 4:21 on Feb. 12 at districts.

“Last time, I didn’t come in with any game plan and I really don’t even still know what I did to win it,” Niemann laughed. “I was going in with nothing to lose and trying everything out there that I could.”

Niemann ends his senior season with a 42-7 record.

“I’ve worked so hard to get to this moment and I was ready for it mentally and physically and spiritually,” Niemann said. “I was prepared in every aspect of my life to come here and do what I needed to do today and I leave here with no regrets and no disappointments.”

Woosley has watched Niemann develop from those early days as a freshman into a state runner-up in his final season.

“He’s just a fighter, he doesn’t make mistakes,” Woosley said. “And if you make a mistake on him, he’s going to score.”

Philomath junior Ben Hernandez won the third-place match over Stayton junior Wyatt Hooper. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Hernandez (42-9), a No. 5 seed at 120, opened with first-period pins over Estacada sophomore Caleb Reilly and Mazama junior Ashton Lewis, who came into the tournament seeded fourth.

“Things started off pretty good in my first two matches going into the semifinals and I knew it was going to be a pretty tough match,” Hernandez said.

La Grande sophomore Kai Carson, the No. 1 seed who would go on to win the title, dropped Hernandez into the consolation bracket.

Said Hernadez, “But you know, I was definitely able to bounce back — getting those two kids I needed to beat to get third.”

Hernandez came out of the consolation semifinals with an impressive 19-second pin over Tillamook freshman and No. 3-seeded David Weathers — a result that tied for Philomath’s fastest fall of the day and fourth-fastest of the tournament.

In the third-place bout against Stayton junior Wyatt Hooper, Hernandez led 2-0 after the first period and was up 5-0 when he won on a pin at 2:26.

“He gets on top and starts running that half and redirecting that half, you’re going to get pinned, if he has control over it; he had a good tournament,” Woosley said. “He was the third-best guy in the bracket — there were just two guys who were better than us.”

Philomath junior David Griffith, who placed fifth at 152, talks to coaches during a break in his match against Woodburn senior Ernie Preciado. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

For those who pay attention to seedings, Griffith exceeded expectations. Unseeded at 152 coming in after a fourth-place finish at regionals, Griffith ended up taking fifth.

“He started scoring like crazy on his feet and when he’s scoring on his feet, he’s hard to beat,” Woosley said. “But he felt confident and I know when he won in the blood round, a lot of emotion came out and he just built on that, so that was really big for him.”

Griffith (22-9) opened with a first-round loss to top-seeded Ruben Hernandez, a senior from Ontario who would go on to win state. So, he had to work his way back through the consolation bracket.

“It’s pretty tough but you know, our coaches train us for it and it’s what we practice for,” Griffith said. “After I lost, I didn’t expect anything else but to place so I just had my mind on it the whole time.”

Griffith posted a win over Henley sophomore and No. 8-seed Luke Chase with a pin in 1:44, and then had back-to-back major decisions over Marshfield junior and No. 4 seed Jonathan Calvert and La Grande junior Jared Isaacson. In the consolation semis, he lost to Sweet Home junior and No. 2 seed Kaden Zajic.

Griffith had a late start to the season with a knee injury that kept him off the mat. Although he said the conditioning wasn’t there for most of the season, he “tried to pick it up these last couple of weeks and it really paid off.”

Ringwald has been forced to play second fiddle to his teammate Niemann all season in the 126-pound weight division. But in terms of skill level, both are right there.

“Chase has been quietly behind Blake all year and even in the big tournaments like Grants Pass — Blake was second and Chase was third,” Woosley said.

Woosley pointed to workouts in practice as playing a key role in preparing for big tournaments.

“Caleb and Ben and Blake — those four are all the same weight pretty much,” Woosley said. “They just feed off of each other and make each other better. Even though it’s hard to score against each other in the practice room, when they get someone new, they usually succeed.”

Ringwald (34-17) entered the tournament unseeded but immediately took care of Henley junior Riley Ore with a 9-2 decision before pushing the No. 1 seed, Estacada sophomore Cohen Schleich, to the limit in the quarterfinals on a 2-0 decision.

Ringwald got back into the win column in the consolation rounds with wins over Baker sophomore Cole Hester and Tillamook senior Austin Simmons, the No. 6 seed, to set himself up for a medal. 

In the consolation semis, La Grande sophomore Tavian Kehr, the No. 3 seed, found a fight on his hands with Ringwald as the bout went to the third period. Kehr ended up with the pin in 4:56.

Ringwald was scheduled to face another La Grande wrestler, sophomore Jaxson Leonard, in the fifth-place bout, but his opponent had to enter a medical forfeit after getting injured with a dislocated knee in his previous match.

The pandemic forced changes to the typical two-day state tournament format. Instead, the athletes faced the challenge of staying in top physical and mental shape in a single day. 

Said Ringwald, “It seemed pretty cluttered — like a lot all packed into one day.”

Two other wrestlers competed for the Warriors at state — freshman River Sandstrom at 106 and junior Caleb Blackburn at 132.

Blackburn won two bouts with a first-round pin over North Valley senior and No. 7 seed Alex Mersino and later on a 6-4 decision in a consolation match over Cottage Grove freshman Carter Bengtson.

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.