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Clackamas CC looks for “four-peat” at NJCAA Nationals in Council Bluffs, Iowa, March 4-5

by Johnnie Johnson, Special to

Clackamas CC poses with its 2022 West Regional champion trophy. Photo courtesy of Clackamas CC Athletics.

Council Bluffs, Iowa: The NJCAA has a long and storied history, but only four teams have ever won four straight team titles. The first was a string of four titles in a row that started in the first year of the NJCAA National Championships in 1960, when Lamar College (CO) lead by Earl Lynn won titles from 1960-1963. North Idaho College lead by John Owen won four titles from 1985-1988, Rex Branum won four titles with Lassen (CA) from 1995-1998, and Luke Moffitt led Iowa Central to four straight titles in 2006-2009.

Lamar and Lassen are no longer active in JUCO wrestling. Coach Moffitt is still an active coach. Now, Josh Rhoden from Clackamas Community College is poised to join the prestigious list of teams winning four straight titles. Clackamas has won the NJCAA title the past three seasons, and after being behind Western Wyoming for most of the season, the Cougars have emerged as the favorite to win their fourth title!

The NJCAA Championships will begin this Friday, March 4 at the Mid-American Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and will finish on Saturday, March 5.

Since 2011 Clackamas Community College's wrestling team has only lost one NJCAA West Region Championship (2013) and has won eight straight conference titles, although the 2021 West Region was not contested as a result of COVID. The Cougars have been incredibly dominant out West and this year was no exception. Ranked #1 in the NJCAA Coaches Association poll, Clackamas qualified all 10 wrestlers for the nationals. All 10 athletes earned top two finishes. Clackamas outpaced region rival North Idaho College in the team race to capture the tournament crown. Cougar grappler Victor Jacinto (149) won the Outstanding Wrestler award, while coach Rhoden was awarded the Coach of the Year for the West Region. In all, the Cougs had six champions and four runners-up

The Cougars weight-by–weight outlook for the NJCAAs:

125 – A transfer from Rutgers, Nic Aguilar is seeded fifth where he could have a regional rematch in the quarterfinalss with No. 4 seed Jett Strickenberger of North Idaho who he has split with this season, losing to him in the district qualifier.

133 - Regional champ Justin Mejia is a No. 4 seed who could meet the top seed Caleb Meekins of Indian Hills in the semifinals.

141 – This starts a string of three top seeded wrestlers for CCC. Marckis Branford is the No. 1 seed for the Cougars at nationals. If the seeds hold, he should meet Creighton Baughman of Iowa Western in the quarters, Parkers Debrocky of Rochester (MN) in the semifinals and Caleb Nathan of Western Wyoming or Frankie Gissendanner of Niagara County in the finals.

149 - The second of three No. 1 seeds for Clackamas is at 149 , where Victor Jacinto was a District champ who is on course to meet Pratt’s Jake Beeson in the semifinals, and possibly Keaton Geerts of Iowa Central or Dylan Brown of NEO in the finals.

157 - Coach Rhoden’s third consecutive No. 1 seed is another district champion in Alex Ramirez at 157. Ramirez could have a match up in the semifinals with title implication individually and for the team where he could potentially match up with Western Wyoming's No. 4 seed Riggen Cordingley. The winner of that match will most likely see one of a pair of Iowa wrestlers in No. 2 seed Nolan Miller-Johnston of Iowa Central or No. 3 seed Fabian Padilla of Western Wyoming. Look for Russo from Nassau CC and Shetley of NEO to cause some trouble in the lower bracket at 157.

165 - Steele Starren, the No. 7 seed at 16, could very well match up with Pratt’s No. 2 seed Scott Radke in the quarterfinals.

174 - Trent Silva is the No. 9 seed at 174 and will have a tall task with Caden Atkins of Pratt in the second preliminary round, and, if he wins, would draw the top seed Christian Smoot of Western Wyoming.

184 - Romeo Manue is the 10th seed at 184 and would most likely match up with No. 7 seed Giovannie Jackson of Harper in the second round.

197 - Michael Gasperis a Regional champ and second seed at 197 is on a collision course with Seth Seago of NEO in the semifinals. If he wins would most likely see top ranked Jose Valdez of North Iowa ACC in the finals.

285 - Kyle Richards, also a Regional champion at 285 and No. 4 seed, should match up with No. 5 seed Shane Whitney in the quarters. The victor would most likely have Iowa Central’s No. 1 seed Jorden Pryor in the semifinals.

Rhoden notes: "These guys make up a solid core who hope to help the Cougars match the NJCAA record of four straight Team National Championships which has happened on four other occasions. In my opinion this has the makings of being the best NJCAA Tournament in a very long time, in large part because teams had the option to bring back guys who normally would graduate due to COVID-19. I think our team this year is as balanced as the team we had that set the NJCAA scoring record. I am not saying we will set the scoring record, but this is just one of the best teams I have had.”

Western Wyoming made a deep run at the nationals last season finishing second. For their efforts, Mustang head coach, Art Castillo was named Coach-of-the-Year. Also in 2021, Western Wyoming placed the highest in school history at the NJCAAs and had 10 All-Americans. No other team in NJCAA history ever had 10 All-Americans in one tournament. Now with 10 ranked wrestlers and the No. 1 regular season team ranking for the second time this season, the dream of the college’s first ever NJCAA national title is a distinct possibility. Coach Castillo with be honored at the 2022 NJCAA through his induction into the Wrestling Hall of Fame as a coach.

The Mustangs return seven All-Americans from last year’s squad. Garrett Ricks (3rd at 125), Destin Summers (7th at 133), Caleb Nathan (4th at 141), Collin Smith (6th at 165), Andrew Nicholson (7th at 184), Tyler Scheurn (4th at 197), and Wyatt Kearn (8th at 285) .

Costello states: “With another outstanding recruiting class, the Mustangs look to once again be in the hunt in Council Bluffs, IA in March! With seven returning AA’s and the addition of River Wardle at 149, Riggen Cordingley at 157, and Christian Smoot at 174, I feel we can have 10 AA’s again and win a title.”

Iowa Central is led by Coach Luke Moffitt and have been flying below the radar for most of the year but made one of the largest leaps in the final poll up to No. 3. The Tritons are led by top ranked and top seeded Jorden Pryor at 285, and have second ranked and seeded wrestlers in Keaton Geerts and Nolan Miller-Johnston. Overall, the Tritons placed second as North Iowa Area CC won the team title. Indian Hills was third, Iowa Western fourth, Ellsworth fifth and Iowa Lakes sixth.

Geerts and Miller-Johnston went back-to-back at 149 and 157 pounds, with Pryor earning his gold at heavyweight. Geerts bested DeVille Dentis of NIACC in the finals with a fall in 3:21. Last year, Geerts reached the national finals for the Tritons alongside Pryor. Also seeded second is Jose Rodriguez at 174. Miller-Johnston claimed 5-2 and 5-1 decisions on his day, including finals win over Fabian Padilla. Pryor earned a technical fall in the semis before escaping vs. Kawaun Deboe of Indian Hills in the finals, 4-3. Jose Rodriguez, a defending national champion for Iowa Central, finished second at 174 pounds. Aidan Harris and John Lovett were each third, Coleton McElliott, Davian Gowens and Darnai Heard placed fourth, and Josh Ramirez was fifth.

Coach Moffitt is no stranger when it comes to winning national titles as the Tritons under Moffit’s direction have become a national power, placing in the Top-8 at the NJCAA National Championships 17 consecutive seasons including 12 Top-3 finishes and seven national championships. The Tritons are accustomed to winning their North Central Region XI wrestling title. The past two years, Indian Hills won the program’s first title in 2021, and Coach Steve Kelly of NIACC won the first regional title during his tenure last year.

Indian Hills is tied for No. 5 with NEO and NIACC is ranked No. 7, but NIACC and IHCC have shown that they are indeed part of the conversation when it come to the hardware in Council Bluffs. All of the top nine ranked teams could play a role in who takes home a trophy.

Pratt CC had a team-high finish last season when they placed fourth. Pratt comes in as the No. 4 ranked team heading to Council Bluffs. Helping the PCC Beavers and coach Ken Kepley are top ranked wrestlers and eight ranked wrestlers overall. Jason Henschel who placed second at 133 in 2021, is top ranked at 125. Jake Beeson, who was second at 149 in 2021, and was ranked 1st in pre-season, dropped from the rankings in December, and is now back and seeded 4th at nationals. Scott Radke is the second seed at 165, at 174 Cayden Atkens , 8th a year ago, is seeded 5th. at 184 is Destin Miller who is seeded 5th, and Devon Dawson is seeded 3rd after placing 5th last year at 285. Both Western Wyoming and Pratt are poised to bring home their schools first ever NJCAA Wrestling Championship title.

Indian Hills is in a tied for the No. 5 spot with NEO. During the programs first year, the Warriors under the direction of coach Cole Spree won the North Central Regional and placed eighth in the nation. The Warriors are looking for some hardware in 2022 with a pair of top-ranked wrestlers. Caleb Meekins at 133 and Deron Pulliam at 184,

The Northeast Oklahoma A&E Golden Norse is led by legendary coach Joe Renfro and features six returning All-American. Dayton Fields (174) is No. 1 ranked in the nation while 184-pounder Jackson White and 285-pounder Dan Baker are both seeded second. Dalen Moore is seeded third at 133, 197-pounder Seth Seago is also seeded third. Having won titles in 2014, 2016, and 2018, the Norse are always in the title hunt!

Despite being ranked No. 7 in the final NJCAA poll, North Iowa Area CC won the tough North Central Region and look to be in the trophy hunt. Coach Steve Kelly’s team will benefit by student-athletes who have opted to return for a third year of eligibility due to the COVID situation. A prime example of a super sophomore would be at 165, where Christian Minto will be looking to become a three-time finalist and two-time NJCAA champion. Minto is the defending champion and was also a runner-up in 2020. Also opting for an additional year is Deville Dentis, ranked No. 2 at 149 Another top ranked and top seeded wrestler for the Trojan’s is Jose Valdez at 197. Clarence Lee-Green is also a seeded wrestler for NIACC. Look for the Trojans to make some noise at the 2022 championships!

Rounding out the top eight is North Idaho College, which qualified all 10 wrestlers at the West District Championship for the NJCAA Nationals. Jett Strickenberger (125) avenged a loss from earlier this season to the No. 3 nationally-ranked Nicolas Aguilar from Clackamas CC. Strickenberger is seeded fourth. If NIC wrestles well, they too can be in the trophy hunt.

The RCTC Yellowjackets, who are ranked 16th overall in the NJCAA between scholarship and non-scholarship teams is the top-ranked non-scholarship team. RCTC had all nine wrestlers that competed in regionals earn spots at the NJCAA National Championships. The Jackets scored 119 points in the event as Coach Andy Hackenmueller earned Regional Coach of the Year.

At Regionals, RCTC got out of the gate quickly as Rocco Visci earned a fall at 4:48 of the first period in the Championship match over Zayne Brown from Itasca. Cael Bartels then earned a 5-2 decision at 133 to earn the win and a spot in the NJCAA Championships.. Returning All-American Parker Dobrocky the won the 141 title with a fall at 1:00 of the first period. At 157 Willie VonRuden secured another win for the Jackets with a 10-6 decision in the championship bout. Region Wrestler of the Year. Walker Ingham earned a fall over Drew Deer in the 174 pound. Antonio Davis then took home the win at 184 and Colton Krell earned a 10-5 decision at 197.

Host team Iowa Western also is also sending a strong contingency to the NJCAA Nationals and are also in that top-4 trophy hunt.

125 - Jason Henschel (Pratt)
133 - Caleb Meekins (Indian Hills)
141 - Marckis Branford (Clackamas)
149 - Victor Jacinto (Clackamas)
157 - Alex Ramirez (Clackamas)
165 - Christian Minto (NIACC)
174 - Christian Smoot (Western Wyoming)
184 - Deron Pulliam (Indian Hills)
197 - Jose Valdez (NIACC)
285 - Jorden Pryor (Iowa Central)

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