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North Idaho among favorites at NJCAA national wrestling

If there has been a constant in this, the 52nd year of the National Junior College Athletic Association national wrestling championships, it has been the performance of North Idaho College.

Nineteen schools have won team titles, none more than the Cardinals’ 13.

Their last came in 2003, however, and lately Iowa Central, of Fort Dodge, has been the team to beat, with four of its six championships coming 2006-09 and a second-place finish last year.

Those two teams expect to be among the challengers at this year’s tournament, which begins first-round competition on eight mats at 9:30 a.m. Friday in the Spokane Convention Center.

“It’s the first time in 50 years it’s been west of the Mississippi,” coach Pat Whitcomb of host school NIC said. “To get it here in Spokane is nice for teams and fans. This is such a hotbed of wrestling.”

Just last weekend, local high school wrestlers brought home a state team title and had two other second places among six trophy winners.

There were numerous individual placers, 29 of them finalists and 16 champions.

Into this hotbed come 251 wrestlers of like intent representing 36 community colleges from throughout the United States.

“It’s not going to be easy,” NIC wrestler Jeremy Bommarito said. “Clackamas has a great team. Others like Harper (the defending champion) and Muskegon are great. Anything can happen. … We’re hoping everything can fall in place and everyone stays healthy.”

In the latest national poll, Clackamas, from Oregon City, Ore., and the Cardinals are ranked 1-2, with Harper fifth and Iowa Central seventh.

Those four and some of the six other teams (Washington’s Highline CC among them) with full 10-wrestler lineups are among the contenders.

Clackamas beat NIC in Region 18 and, leading by a point, won six championships, including four of five head-to-head finals between the two.

“It’s pretty exciting to have the top two out of our region,” Whitcomb said. “We beat them in a dual and they wrestled really well in the regional.”

Muskegon CC beat Harper in their regional tournament. A year ago Harper became the first program that doesn’t offer scholarships to win the Division I title.

Another team considered among the favorites is Niagara County CC, like Clackamas a team bringing six regional champions.

A weight class to watch is 197, with defending champion Walker Clarke of Labette (Kan.) CC and NIC’s Jamelle Jones, a Delaware resident who won in 2008 at St. Louis-Meremac.

It took a year for him to get a release, Whitcomb said.

“He went back home for a year and we kept in contact, and he came out this year,” Whitcomb said. “I wish we’d had him out of high school. He’s talented.”

The 125-, 133- and 174-pound classes all have four returning All-Americans, NIC 125-pound third placer Kyle McCrite among them. He was ranked No. 1 in the nation much of the year.

Also in that weight class is Iowa Central freshman Josh Heinzer, a three-time Washington state champion from Lake Stevens.

The advantage for area teams, if there is one, is the fact that nationals are close to home.

“It’s been a long season for all of us with all the traveling we’ve done – not just physically, but mentally,” Bommarito said.

“Others have to fly, a lot will drive, but for us it’s just a hop, skip and a jump. I couldn’t think of anything better than to finish up my final year with maybe two rings.”

North Idaho, a perennial top-four placer, prepped by competing against four-year colleges in tournaments and has the balance to contend, Whitcomb said.

“We’ve had good practices and the hay’s in the barn,” he said. “We can’t take the foot off the gas.”