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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

All or nothing

Derek Kipperberg, facing at right, practices takedowns on Justin Pearch.  Both wrestlers are moving up a weight class to fill in for other wrestlers who couldn't keep up their grades or make weight.
 (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The latest NJCAA wrestling rankings have North Idaho College at No. 1, as it has been all season. The individual rankings list all 10 Cardinals in the top eight at their respective weights, including three No. 1 seeds. Take a good, long look. That team no longer exists.

In its place is a revamped crew that could still win NIC’s 14th national title. Or it could finish eighth. It’s a gamble coach Pat Whitcomb is willing to take.

He said his reasoning is simple. When top-ranked 197-pounder Jake Kallestad was ruled academically ineligible at the semester break, Whitcomb could have taken the safe route and simply replaced Kallestad.

“And if we have a normal national tournament, we probably finish third, maybe fourth,” Whitcomb said.

That’s not good enough.

So Whitcomb opted for a bigger, riskier makeover. Two freshmen scheduled to redshirt have been inserted as starters. Three others will move up a weight class, including No. 2-ranked 133-pounder Justin Pearch and No. 1-ranked 141-pounder Derek Kipperberg. Those moves leave previous starters – Brent Stover at 149 and Mike Rogers at 157 – competing for one job at 157.

Cody Nicholson, a four-time state placer from Michigan, steps in at 133. Pearch moves to 141, Kipperberg to 149 and Evan Mattingly, a two-time state champion from Vashon, Wash., is the new starter at 197.

“Since we’ve been back from (Christmas) break, with weight battles and grades and whatever, it just gives us a sour taste in our mouths,” Whitcomb said. “We just had to make a change and the atmosphere in practice has been good. We finally wrestled like a team that wants to win a national title rather than trying to make weight or worrying about what’s going to happen at this spot or that. Now we can just go wrestle.”

There will be no easing into the transition. NIC visits fifth-ranked Lassen College in Susanville, Calif., tonight. NIC thumped Lassen 41-4 in early December. The Cardinals return home for four duals in two days at Christianson Gym, starting with Pima College, of Tucson, Ariz., at 7:30 on Friday.

“We’re taking a different team, but I think we have the same mindset,” Kipperberg said of the rematch with Lassen.

Pearch, who placed fifth nationally at 133 two years ago and was sidelined with a broken ankle last year, has had a difficult time staying at 133. He has failed to make weight three times this season.

“I let the team down not being able to make 133, but that was the biggest struggle for me,” Pearch said. “Now I get my weight back up, and I think I’ll be a better wrestler. It’s going to help the team more because a couple of us don’t have to cut as much as we did.

“I think we’re still No. 1. We show it in the (practice) room, that’s what matters. And when it comes to the national tournament, we’ll really show it.”

Kipperberg, who will go from a big 141-pounder to a smaller 149-pounder, faces a tougher adjustment. Putting on pounds isn’t hard, Kipperberg said, but adding the right type of weight takes time. NIC has roughly three weeks before the Region 18 Tournament on Feb. 12.

“I’m taking the same disciplined approach that I did at 141 and see if I can make things happen,” said Kipperberg, a sophomore from Ollala, Wash. “I can definitely see what Mr. Whitcomb is thinking and that he wants to get the best guys out there. Individually, it’s kind of a heartbreaker. I’ve been working hard to stay down at 141.”

At 157, Rogers is the starter, but Stover has been solid at 149.

Whitcomb still expects big things from Pearch and Kipperberg, although he feels a tinge of anxiety about moving two likely national finalists at their previous weights. Whitcomb made the move at this time so the wrestlers will have some time to adapt to their new roles.

“I don’t think I would have made this move if we’d never won a national title,” Whitcomb said. “There’s nothing wrong with second, third, fourth or eighth. But we’re gauged on whether we can put another number on that press box (where NIC’s previous titles are listed). When you get close, you gotta take a chance.”