Ex-SH wrestler Cowger, who excelled in college, honored with High-Q award

Scott Swanson

Years ago, the writer of this article was out on a run early one weekend morning.

It’s not that common to see someone else out running, especially pre-breakfast on a weekend in Sweet Home, but as he jogged back into town after a long jaunt out Ames Creek Road, the writer noticed a fellow runner ahead.

Closing in, he recognized high school wrestler Tyler Cowger, out alone on an off-season training run.

Fast-forward five years, to Friday night, during the Sweet Home High School graduation ceremonies. Cowger, now about to graduate from Southern Oregon University after one of the greatest wrestling careers ever at that school, was named one of this year’s two High-Q Award of Merit honorees, joining a list of some of the most illustrious, accomplished graduates Sweet Home has produced.

Presenting the award Friday was Steve Thorpe, Sweet Home High School wrestling coach and member of the selection committee for the award.

“That’s pretty cool,” Cowger said last week as he was about to receive the honor. “I’m pretty excited about this whole experience. I was not expecting to have this award at all.”

The High-Q Award was established by the SHHS State Championship High-Q Teams of 1972-73, who competed in a popular televised game show centered on quick recall, in which high school teams would compete answering timed questions about topics they studied in school.

The High-Q Award is not necessarily given annually, and is presented to a graduate of SHHS who has made exceptional contributions or achieved notable success, beyond high school, in areas of academics, leadership, vocation, and sometimes, athletics. Nominees must have been recognized on a state=wide and/or national or international level.

Cowger is a four-time NAIA All-American in wrestling, placing in the top eight at the national tournament four times, including second as a junior. He is the seventh SOU wrestler in history to earn All-American status all four years and his total finishes – two fourths, a fifth and the second, are the fourth-highest for the Raiders. He finishes with a 114-36 record, one of five wrestlers at SOU to win more than 100 matches.

Last week he was named Wrestler of the Year and this year’s male Hall of Fame honoree at SOU, the first time ever a wrestler has won that award, Raiders Coach Mike Ritchey said.

“He’s contributed that much back in his career here,” said Ritchey, who also has hired Cowger as a paid staff assistant coach for next year.

“I actually hired him in the hallway at the national tournament,” Ritchey said. “I didn’t want one of the other coaches to get him.”

Thorpe, a member of the High-Q Committee, along with original High-Q Team member Richard Black, noted that Cowger also has been an Academic All-American and has perennially appeared on the SOU President’s List.

Cowger placed in the high school state tournament all four years for the Huskies, taking second twice, then winning the state title as a senior. He also won high school state freestyle and Greco championships, and was a high school All-American, placing in the top eight nationally – the fifth Sweet Home wrestler to earn that honor.

“Wrestling is what Tyler chose to be great at,” Thorpe said. “By the time the dust cleared in high school, he was an incredibly accomplished high school wrestler.”

Cowger said he changed his approach to the sport after losing in the state finals as a junior to North Marion senior Lucas Randall.

“A lot of times, I was always trying to go after and beat somebody,” he said. “My senior year, I said, ‘I’m not going to cut any more weight. I’m just going to go where I want to go.”

After winning the state championship that year, he opted to sign with SOU, despite advances from Arizona State and Virginia and some other large schools.

“I’m not in the sport of wrestling to become a famous person,” he said. “I just wanted to be a good wrestler.”

During the High-Q Award presentation Friday, Cowger said everyone around him thought Arizona State, an NCAA Division I school, was “best” for him.

“I mean who turns down a D-I?” he said. “But that was not what I wanted. I chose Southern Oregon. I chose it over Arizona because it was a place where I thought I could be happy and a place that I felt that I could succeed on the mat and excel in the classroom.”

It also was important to be closer to his family, he said.

Thorpe said that when Cowger “had a lot of choices. I think he looked at picture of what’s going to be best for him in the long run.

“Arizona State couldn’t believe he chose Southern Oregon over them. He knew Arizona State wasn’t going to be the right fit for him.”

Southern Oregon was.

Cowger did not opt to redshirt, as many freshmen do, his first year. Another SOU recruit was Randall, out of North Marion, whom Cowger had never beaten.

“I’d wrestled him a lot, but what I didn’t do was I didn’t stop evolving as a wrestler,” Cowger said. “I kept learning going to clinics, working things out.”

When he got to college, Randall was there, in his weight class.

“I thought, ‘Oh shoot, Lucas Randall is in my weight class. I’ve never beaten him.’ I wrestled him one time in a challenge match and beat him 5-3. A lot of those guys just peak, and they peak at the wrong time.

“I beat him 8-0 in a four-minute fun match we held outside at the end of the year. He never came back.”

Cowger made the starting lineup for the Raiders as a freshman and finished second in the NAIA regionals. Then, in his first match of the national tournament, he upset the No. 1-ranked wrestler in the country.

“What he did is he took the opportunities presented to him and he took advantage of them,” Thorpe said. “He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever coached. He didn’t just grow as a wrestler. He grew in all facets of his life. Student, person, coach.

“His development came in all facets. He became more coachable. What he’s doing is he’s taken advantage of opportunities to make himself a better all-around athlete, an all-around person.”

Cowger, who is graduating with a degree in physical education and engaged to be married, is ready for the “next chapter,” Thorpe said.

Cowger will begin work on a master’s degree in the fall.

“He’s done competing. Now he gets to start giving back,” Thorpe said.

Ritchey said he grabbed Cowger for his staff because, “one, he’s passionate about the sport, and two, he knows about what we do. And he has a great personality for coaching.”

All that experience at the national tournament, where the Raiders have won two of their five championships in Ritchey’s 23 years as head coach, doesn’t exactly hurt either, he said.

“He’s just one of those guys I think will be a great coach. He’s a great person to have on your staff.

“Obviously, he’s very young. I’m getting old. I want to find somebody to pour my knowledge into. I want to pass on the things I know and he’s coachable.

“He’s been coachable this whole time and I’m excited to invest in him. We’ll see where it’s at when I’m done and where he’s at then.

“He does the little extra. That’s the difference.”