By Brian Eller - email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL - When it comes to wrestling, Matt Wadas has been around the block.
With a former wrestling coach for a father and his own experience as both a middle school and high school coach, Wadas has been ensconced in the sport his entire life. But even after nine seasons with the Wildcats, the fourth-year head coach is still adding new wrinkles to his coaching tenure. And with one of his youngest squads competing for him in 2009, this season is no different.
"It's weird, but I'm doing more teaching than I have in the past couple of years," Wadas said. "You get the moments where you're frustrated, but when you're down there just teaching the basics, it's great. It's a lot of fun."
The tradition at Warren County dates back to the 1980s, when former coaches like Charlie Dodge and Rodger Seemiller helped establish a dominant program.
When Wadas took over as head coach at Warren County four years ago, he was fortunate to take the reins of a senior-heavy group, one that was one of the top programs in the state. This season, however, the Wildcats are being forced to rely on a young core of wrestlers. Warren County lost 10 seniors to graduation last season, and this year have just three upperclassmen on the roster.
"It's hard because the table was sort of set for me because I started with such a senior group," Wadas said, "and then we carried that on, so it's frustrating as a coach when you want [the young guys] to be at a level they're not. But I only have three seniors, so I have most of the team coming back next year. When we get into positions where I see some inexperienced things happen, I just have to take a step back and tell the kids we're in a marathon, not a race."
Along with the three seniors, Wadas often looks to junior Sam Fiel, who returns as one of the top wrestlers for the Wildcats. Fiel, who competes at 140 pounds, finished second in the district last season and made an appearance at regionals. This year it's up to Fiel to help lead his teammates, a job he admits sometimes comes with some pressure.
"I feel it, sometimes, I guess," Fiel said. "It's kind of exciting to be one of the leaders, but we've definitely got a young team. They're really good and they work hard. They're not much experience-wise, but they work hard."
The team's "inexperience" was put to the test last Saturday, as the Wildcats hosted a duals meet with George Mason, Broadway, Monticello and Stonewall Jackson. But any first-meet jitters quickly vanished for the Wildcats, as they swept the meet and had five wrestlers win each of their four matches.
"It felt good," Fiel said. "To see our team win was nice, because everyone was talking about how young our team is and how we're not going to be that good, but I think we're going to surprise a lot of people."
One early-season surprise this season has been the performance of sophomore Kyle Pannell. Pannell, who wrestles at 103 pounds, was a guy Wadas said was "recruited straight from gym class," but has taken to the sport after struggling through his freshman campaign.
"My mom's ex-boyfriend's son wrestled, so I went to his matches," Pannell said. "I really liked it and when I'm out there I just want to get my points and try to get rid of my nerves on the mat."
Pre-match nerves are to be expected with such a young group, but one of the other challenges is keeping them focused, especially at practice. Both Field and Pannell said Wadas is "pretty laid back," but were quick to admit they spend a lot of practice time doing pushups as punishment.
"We do a lot of pushups," Fiel said. "Just mostly [because we're] messing around. It's hard to go a whole practice without goofing off, because it's the end of the day after school and most of your buddies wrestle."
It's clear this season is one of maturation and discipline for both Wadas and the Wildcats. But what the squad lacks in age and experience, Wadas says it more than makes up for in potential on the mat.
"I've seen some really good things this season," he said. "But it's just the start of the season, so we've got a long hill to climb."