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After battling season-long adversity, Grays Harbor College places second at conference championships

Mar. 5—To say it's been a tumultuous season for the Grays Harbor men's wrestling team would be an understatement.

The Chokers, winners of eight consecutive Northwest Collegiate Wrestling Association Northwest Conference Championships, have dealt with an alleged lack of clarity from a handful of school officials regarding eligibility, leading to several wrestlers being unable to compete at times this season.

This also led to the school recently parting ways with head coach Chris Boeger, leaving the program bruised and battered leading into the biggest two meets of the season.

But as the Chokers proved at the regional championships on Saturday, they were far from beaten.

Competing with just eight wrestlers with five still sidelined, Grays Harbor College placed second overall an inspiring performance at Hoquiam High School.

The Chokers were led by Joshua Luna and Rocco Clark III, each of whom were crowned conference champions by taking first place in their respective weight classes.

Luna powered his way to the 197-pound final with a quick :29 fall win over Washington State's Karl Schuenemann in the quarterfinal round and followed that up with a 6-2 decision over Big Bend's Mac Laird in the semifinals.

Luna and Western Washington's Jacob Westfall enterained the crowd with an athletic final that often resembled two rams knocking horns and was so fast-paced the two wrestlers went clear off the mat on three separate occassions.

With dogged determination down the stretch after a short break for a blood clean-up, Luna pulled away for an 11-7 victory and conference championship.

"It was just a fun match. We went at it and I'm going to be seeing him again at nationals," Luna said. "It was just real fun to go out there and be under the lights. It was a great experience. ... (The victory) puts me in a position to know that I'm able to succeed with the work I'm putting in. And if I continue on my journey, then I'll be able to place and, hopefully, be an All-American."

"Josh Luna wrestled real tough," said the Chokers' Kyle Strode, who was announced as the interim head coach the previous Thursday. "He dominated the match until he got a little bit of blood time. We were in the corner taking care of his bloody nose and he said, 'Just get this taken care of. I want to get out there and win this.' He exuded confidence."

Clark battled through a hard-fought 285-pound quarterfinal, defeating University of Washington's Rolan Schoeneman via fall in overtime (6:37) and received a bye in the semifinals.

Clark faced a familiar foe in UW's Keegan Bach in the final. The match proceeded as one would expect in their fourth meeting against one another, with points being at a premium.

Clark held a slim 2-1 lead in the third period, but a Bach escape tied the match at 2-2 heading into overtime.

In the first 30-second overtime period, Bach took a 3-2 lead as he once again escaped Clark's grasp.

With both wrestlers nearly out of gas entering the second overtime, Clark had half a minute to make something happen.

And boy did he.

Starting from the bottom, Clark initially attempted an escape at the whistle, but Bach held on in hopes of riding out the time to win the conference title.

But Clark quickly changed strategy and began to position for a reversal. After a few rolls to gain position, Clark gained top control to complete the two-point reversal with four seconds left on the clock.

Clark then rose to his feet and put his hands up in the air in celebration as the crowd roared with the 4-2 victory.

"This is my fourth time wrestling Keegan Bach and kudos to him. He's a senior and I'm just a freshman and he has a lot of experience on me," said Clark, who has won three straight matches against Bach. "But I knew with all the hard work I've been putting in I could not only put in a good match but win the match. I have all the respect in the world for him."

"We both had a game plan going into it and were battling back-and-forth, just fighting for points," added Clark, who won over Bach in double-overtime for their second-consecutive meeting. "I knew I had short time. It was a last-ditch effort. I had to put everything I had, all my strength, into that last roll. I got the reversal, looked up and there was no time left and I had the win. ... Just that feeling of hearing everybody erupt, cheering for me. It gave me the strength that I needed."

"He drug it out there at the very end and got it done," Strode said. "It was exciting. That is what wrestling is all about, those close matches that keep you on the edge of your seat. It don't get better than that."

Two other Chokers wrestlers competed in their weight-class final.

Grays Harbor's Luis Barajas lost in the 125-pound final 11-4 to Washington State's Kobe Bui and former Elma High School standout Austin Salazar lost to WSU's Evann Tauscher via 20-4 technical fall in a 235-pound final marred with five long first-round stoppages after Tauscher's nose began to bleed early in the match.

"The bloodiest match I've ever seen in my life," Strode said. "I've never seen anything like that."

Chokers LaMonte Sandling (165 pounds, 3rd), Wyatt Hood (133, 4th) and Hassan Abdi (149, 5th) also earned a spot at the NCWA National Championships on March 14-16 at the Brookshire Arena in Bossier City, Louisana.

Grays Harbor placed second in the team standings with 110.5 points behind Washington State (207.5), snapping the Chokers' streak of eight consecutive conference team titles.

Considering the headaches and disruptions the Chokers have had to endure this season, having the winning streak snapped was the furthest thing from their minds.

"We have a solid unit. I believe in each and everyone of my boys," Clark said. "(The eligibility issues) are something we all had to face together. We all had to buckle down and come together. ... We all made sure that we got our grades up and were eligible to wrestle this tournament, to show what we could really do to reach our full potential and I think we did that today."

"My teammates, I love every one of them," Luna said. "Obviously, we've been battling eligibility issues and injuries, but with the people here now, I'm glad to say that they're my brothers and we're going to go to nationals and travel together and hopefully succeed."

Full results available on trackwrestling.com.

GHC Results

125 pounds: 2, Luis Barajas.

133: 4, Wyatt Hood.

149: 5, Hassan Abdi.

165: 3, LaMonte Sandling.

197: 1, Josh Luna. 6, Noah Duran.

235: 2, Austin Salazar.

285: 1, Rocco Clark III.