Tyler Brown tries to break the grip of Anthony Flores who was caught locking hands, an illegal hold. (Keizertimes/ERIC A. HOWALD)

Of the Keizertimes

Earlier this year, the McNary High School varsity wrestling team escaped with the district title on a slim margin of 4.5 points.

The challenge this season: do better.

“We’re going to be training harder, working longer and stepping up our game,” said Stevin Urban, a returning district champ wrestling in the 160-pound class. “We’re going to have to have a lot of young members step up and be leaders on the team with the upper classmen.”

That’s not to say the Celts don’t have plenty of firepower waiting to be unleashed. Along with Urban, the team returns district champs Wes Heredia and Levi Martinez. Martinez is also the reigning state champ in the 112-pound division, although he will likely be wrestling at 116 pounds during the regional competition next year. Urban and Heredia placed fourth in state competition.

“We’re already excited for regionals and state,” Martinez said. “But  we have fill out a couple of weight slots that we currently don’t have.”

“It means getting to know all your teammates again and bringing back that bond,” added Celt returner Edgar Jimenez. “It always kicks in toward the end, but every year you wish it could have kicked in sooner.”

In addition to a new faces on the roster, the team will be adjusting to a new regional format for competition. While the familiar Salem-area high schools are all part of the landscape, Tualatin, Tigard, Newberg and McMinnville high schools have all been added to the mix.

“It’s sort of nerve-wracking,” said Jimenez. “There’s going to be a lot more matches, and it means we’re going to have to work harder.”

The switch to regional competition restores a 10-team league some fans might remember from a few seasons back, but the more drastic changes took place in the state playoff format, said Jason Ebbs, McNary head coach.

“There’s only 16 qualifying spots down from 21. There’s going to be a lot of learning going on this year. I think it’s going to be harder to get to state and, once we get there, it will be harder out of the gate than it’s ever been.”

Ebbs expects the dogfights of the season to come in the semifinal rounds and in the consolation semifinals.

“In those matches you’re on to state if you win and, if you lose, you’re a placer, but you just barely missed that goal of getting to the state,” Ebbs said.

While the smaller field at state competition will be at the back of his mind as the Celts progress through the season, Ebbs’ current focus is keeping his team grounded in the now.

“On paper, we have a lot of returning talent and the potential to be a pretty good team this year. One of our challenges as a program is to take that talent and make it come to fruit,” he said. “We have to make sure [our wrestlers are] not sitting back thinking they’re good, but training hard to meet our expectations.”

McNary’s first matches of the season will be in a tournament the Celts host Friday, Dec. 3, beginning at 4 p.m.