PRINEVILLE —

Crook County’s fire has been raging for 10 months.

It was sparked in February, when the four-time Class 4A wrestling state champion Cowboys — a program that owns two of the top three team scores in OSAA state meet history, including a record 405.5 points set in 2014 — were in an uncomfortable position: second place.

By half a point, Crook County’s reign came to a close. Sweet Home was the new 4A state champion. By half a point.

“I was pretty heartbroken, to be honest,” says 132-pound senior Pacer Quire, who took third at state at 120. “I was really hoping for it. I could have done better, and there were some other kids who could have done better. Score just one more point, and we would have had state. It was kind of depressing.”

“I think, in the moment, I was probably disappointed,” says 11th-year Crook County coach Jake Huffman, whose team at state last season included five sophomores and four freshmen. “We saw the possibility of a state championship, even with a young team. You kind of let those hopes and the potential of that build up in your head. So when you don’t achieve that, it’s a bit of a letdown. It was emotionally draining for everybody.”

Yet Huffman recalls how improved his Cowboys are compared with the beginning of the 2016-17 season. They are still young this season, but they are battle-tested. They are hungry. They are hell-bent on returning Crook County’s rightful spot atop the 4A wrestling world.

The Cowboys’ fire was sparked 10 months ago — and it is still blazing with fury.

“The sting of being that close has never really left us, anybody,” Huffman says. “That’s really what’s burning right now for everybody. Everybody had something to be hungry about this year.”

“We still have a chip on our shoulder,” adds 145-pound senior Tyler Fioravanti, who was fourth at state at 132 last year. “We came out this year fired up, and we just want to win and prove to everyone that … even though we’re a young team, we can still kick some butt.”

So many what-ifs haunted Crook County coaches following the 2017 state meet. An extra point here. Crook County avoiding a fall there. Huffman recalls the staff “narrowing” down those what-ifs to “about 20 things that could have happened to go in our favor.”

So far this season, the Cowboys are determined to avoid any would-could-have-been moments.

“Last year was probably one of our hardest years,” Fioravanti says, referring to strong seniors who graduated in 2016 and Crook County’s youth last season. “But this year, it’s pretty intense. We go the extra mile. Even on our days off, the guys that are really motivated will work out and go on runs and find ways to get better.”

“For me, it’s my senior year, so I’m not holding anything back,” says 132-pound Cole Morgan, a 106-pound fifth-place finisher at state last year. “I’m wrestling with everything I’ve got.”

And Morgan is seeing his teammates follow a similar mindset. As a result, the Cowboys’ wrestling room is as intense as ever, Huffman says. Daily, Crook County wrestlers are training with state-championship approaches, rarely — if ever — allowing a minute of complacency to settle in.

“There’s a lot of kids that are working a lot harder this year,” Quire says. “It’s kind of fired us up a little bit. Nobody on our team likes to lose. Crook County is a great program, and you want to do the best you can for it.”

“We still have something to prove,” Fioravanti says. He notes, as an example, that at the North Bend Coast Classic, a premier early-season tournament featuring some of the top programs in the state, Crook County was seeded seventh. “No one’s going to think we’re a threat until we prove ourselves or we show them, which I feel like we have been. I feel like they’re starting to open their eyes and see we’re a force to be reckoned with.”

Already the Cowboys have begun turning heads — and impressing even themselves.

At its season-opening meet, the Perry Burlison Wrestling Classic in Turner, Crook County boasted a first-place finisher in 182-pound sophomore Kyle Knudtson and runners-up in Quire and sophomores Hunter Mode (106 pounds) and Zachary Mauras (126). The Cowboys took first at the 24-team meet, defeating the likes of Thurston, a top-10 state finisher in 5A last season; Dallas, four times the 5A state runner-up and once a state champion in the past six years; and Cascade and Sweet Home, two perennial 4A contenders.

A week later, at the North Bend Coast Classic, Morgan took first, while five others placed second to lead Crook County to first-place at the 36-team tourney. Looking up at the Cowboys were Redmond, a consistent 5A state title contender; Crater, the 5A state champ last season; Marshfield, a top 4A program; three frequent top-five state finishers in 6A (David Douglas, North Medford and Sprague); and Roseburg, which has won nine 6A state titles since 2007.

“That’s always the big measuring stick, right?” Huffman says of the Coast Classic. “Roseburg is the gold standard. They have been for the past 12 years. They’ve been the best program in the state, hands down, and everyone’s trying to chase them and try to be as prominent as they are. When you’re able to go up against their guys and finish ahead of them, that’s a good indicator that you’re doing things right.

“We obviously still have a lot to work on, and those teams are going to get better too, but that early in the season, it’s validation that the things you’re doing are working. And we need to continue doing those things.”

The Cowboys placed 20th at the 153-team Reno Tournament of Champions in Nevada a week after the Coast Classic, as Knudtson placed sixth and Mode took eighth. Yet even with a relatively high finish at such a top-tier tournament, Crook County was humbled — a necessary ingredient as the Cowboys continue their road to redemption.

“That just shows us that, yeah, there is still a lot we can work on,” Quire says. Fioravanti then adds, chuckling midway: “It makes us better wrestlers. If everyone was worse than us, there’d be no point in wrestling. Because we’d be the best. There’s always going to be someone better.”

This season, however, few wrestlers — and fewer programs — have been better than Crook County. Certainly the Cowboys’ dominant run to open the season stems from that half-point loss at state last season. But Huffman points out something else, something that cannot be seen in a box score.

“It just seems like the kids are having more fun with it,” the coach says. “They’re not looking at it like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to train’ or ‘I’ve got to work.’ It’s almost like they’re looking at it like it’s fun. When you have guys that really like to be in there, they look at work as something they want to do and not something they have to do. … Just like in a workplace, when you have really good chemistry, it’s just fun to come into work. And I think that’s what we have this year.”

That heartbreaking finish at state becomes a bit more distant with each day. Yet the sting still resonates. And the fire it stoked for the Cowboys continues to blaze.

“It’s just as hot,” Morgan assures. “We’re not going to be happy until we have another state title. That’s the bottom line. That’s the expectation at Crook County.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0307, glucas@bendbulletin.com.

19164641