As far as North Idaho College wrestling coach Pat Whitcomb is concerned, the National Junior College Athletic Association Tournament essentially begins Saturday at the Region 18 Tournament.
The top-ranked Cardinals, who will host the NJCAA Tournament at the Spokane Convention Center in two weeks, hope to position themselves favorably with a strong showing at regionals at Southwestern Oregon College in Coos Bay.
“We told our guys this is an extension of the national tournament,” NIC coach Pat Whitcomb said. “If you win a regional title it puts you on a bracket where you don’t wrestle another regional champion until the quarterfinals (at nationals). If you don’t, you could hit a regional champ in the first or second match.”
NIC moved up to No. 1 after thumping previously top-ranked Clackamas 33-11 in Oregon City in mid January. The Cardinals also handled Clackamas 40-12 in Coeur d’Alene in November. NIC’s only dual loss was to Boise State, which was ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division I at the time.
Whitcomb anticipates a close regional, in part because Clackamas has the services of Derek Mestrovich and Brett Sanchez, the latter was ruled eligible recently by the NJCAA. Sanchez hurt his shoulder in the January match against NIC and Mestrovich wasn’t in the lineup.
“No disrespect to Yakima or Highline or Southwestern Oregon, they’re going to have their five solid guys, but I don’t think the other teams will slow us or Clackamas down,” Whitcomb said. “We’ll both score a lot of points. At nationals we probably won’t do that.”
As the host region for the NJCAA event, Region 18 will receive an additional 10 berths. Whitcomb expects NIC and No. 2 Clackamas to qualify all 10 wrestlers, barring injuries or major upsets.
NIC’s Jamelle Jones is ranked No. 1 nationally at 197 pounds “for a reason,” Whitcomb said. “His only losses were at Las Vegas. He got beat in double overtime by the No. 2 seed.”
Lakeland High product Kyle McCrite, who recently dropped from No. 1 to No. 3, will compete in a wide-open 125-pound division. Brock Banta is ranked second at 133 pounds and Coeur d’Alene High graduate Jesse Neilson (174) will be trying to avenge a couple of narrow losses to Clackamas’ Tarrence Williams, who has signed with Oregon State.
“What I like about our guys is we’re healthy,” Whitcomb said. “We’re in good shape and we’re wrestling well.”