At the end of last Wednesday’s light practice, the West Albany High wrestling team gathered around coach Casey Horn.

The Bulldogs were set to open Greater Valley Conference action the following day against West Salem and perennial power Sprague, the five-time defending district champion. Horn’s excitement reverberated throughout the stuffy West Albany mat room.

“This is the perfect time to wrestle Sprague,” the coach repeated to his team.

Horn was dead on.

Several Bulldogs turned in lights-out performances as West Albany stunned the Olympians, 39-34, in their home gym. The team capped its evening with a 48-30 victory over West Salem, sending a clear message to the rest of the GVC.

“I feel like we’ve had a pretty strong start,” Bulldogs 160-pounder Mitchell Sorte said last week. Sorte is the GVC’s reigning 160 champion.

“We walked in with some confidence and a lot of motivation to do well this season.”

Sorte went 2-0 with a pair of pins against Sprague and West Salem. The senior, who placed third at last February’s 6A state championships, was the 160 runner-up at the Perry Burlison Classic earlier this month.

Fellow seniors and returning state competitors Wyatt French (132), Sawyer Myres (145) and Bobby Chavez (182) also won both matches in the district opener, as did junior Trona Free (152) and freshman Caleb Hart (113).

“I have to credit a lot of our success to the coaches,” Myres said. “We have a phenomenal coaching staff that works hard with us on the off days, extra practices, after practice. I’m just really thankful for them.”

Added Chavez: “Our coaches are really good with helping us and they’ve taught us everything that we know. They are just amazing coaches.”

The Bulldogs, who will leave the GVC for the 5A Mid-Willamette Conference next school year, have skyrocketed in numbers this winter.

Horn said the team has roughly 50 wrestlers on the roster and 42 to 44 kids participating at each practice. More than half are newcomers.

“Every single one of them is hungry, eager to work and has really inspired us as coaches,” Horn said. “They want to get better and have bought into the sport and to what we’re doing.”

West also has a strong group of seasoned veterans that include French and Myres; both were district runners-up a season ago.

Myres, who went on to place sixth in the 138 bracket at state, won the 145 title at the Perry Burlison Classic and finished second at the Rose City Championship. French took fifth at 132 in both tournaments.

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Chavez (195) and junior Gregory Sather (106) are also returning state competitors.

“The leadership in the room makes it a lot quicker for the young kids to learn,” French said. “We are all grinding and getting better.”

Horn praised the senior class for elevating the expectations of West Albany wrestling.

The Bulldogs snatched second at last season’s GVC championships following consecutive fourth-place finishes.

“This group really means a lot to me,” Horn said. “They’ve done so much and they’ve changed a lot of what West Albany is about and the culture we’ve brought into our wrestling. We’ve had a lot of hiccups but we’ve also had a lot of highs, so we are excited to get these guys a senior year and see what they can do.”

West is off for the next week and will host the two-day Northwest Duals Dec. 28-29 at the Linn County Fairgrounds. The Bulldogs resume GVC duals Jan. 4 at North Salem.

The district championships are scheduled for Feb. 2-3 at McKay in Salem. The state championships for all classifications run Feb. 16-17 at Memorial Coliseum in Portland.

“Senior year is definitely an eye-opening experience,” Myres said. “Every time I step on the mat, it could be my last. I’m really appreciating every little moment, all the hard practices and appreciating the grind. It’s a constant battle.”

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