By BEN JOHNSON
Press Sports Editor
Through two duals, Tahlequah’s wrestling team has posted two victories — a stark contrast to recent years.
Needless to say, the third victory will be much harder to come by with two-time defending dual state champion Claremore arriving at the TMAC tonight at 6 p.m.
“It’s going to be a test, no doubt,” Tahlequah coach Brandon Benson said. “They’re the two-time defending dual state champions, and they’re just as tough as they have been in the past.”
The Tigers, who have posted wins over Bishop Kelley (60-18) and Pryor (42-25), will attempt to take down a Claremore team that is ranked as Class 5A’s top team in duals on okwrestle.com and No. 2 on okrankings.com.
“It will probably be the toughest test we’ll have all year, dual-wise,” said Benson of Claremore, who wrestles as a 5A school in duals and as a 6A team in tournaments.
Despite the hurdle that Claremore presents, Benson would rather take on a high-caliber opponent that a bottom-feeder.
“My biggest deal is you can go wrestle the Bishop Kelley’s and the Pryor’s and all those teams that you can beat up on,” he said. “But you really find out what kind of kids you have when they can step on the mat against a team like (Claremore) and go toe-to-toe with them.”
The Zebras enter with four wrestlers — Gunnar Woodburn (103 pounds), Caleb Freeman (112), Mike Williams and Nick Haugen — ranked as No. 1s in their respective weight classes in 6A. Woodburn and Freeman are expected to wrestle up a weight tonight against the Tigers.
As for a gameplan against Claremore’s standouts, Benson knows what he’ll say to his guys.
“The thing to tell a kid who is going up against No. 1 is, ‘if rankings were all that mattered, then why would you strap it up and go wrestle?’” Benson stated. “Anything can happen at any given point ... it’s just a matter of who wants it more. If our kid can go out there and give (the opposing wrestler) everything he has, that’s all can be asked.”
One thing Benson and his team will have going in their favor will be that they’re well rested. The Tigers haven’t wrestled in a dual or a tournament since Dec. 2 against Pryor.
“We had a good week off,” Benson said. “We got a lot better. We ironed out some kinks and things. Our kids are finally starting to train like a team who is ranked in the top 15 in the state. That week off came at a great time.”
As for expectations against the top-ranked Zebras, Benson just wants his team to give it all it has.
“I’m just looking for my kids to give them everything they want,” he said. “And if the Claremore bus pulls out of town saying, ‘the Tahlequah Tigers gave us everything we wanted and more,’ then that’s all I can ask of my kids. And if we do that, that will start to put us on the map a little bit.”
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