By Brian Eller - firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Skyline coach Ryan Keel doesn't want to see cockiness from his wrestlers at practice.
Once they hit the mat, however, all bets are off.
"You only worry about the cockiness at practice," Keel said. "I've never seen a championship team that didn't have a chip on its shoulder. I've never seen a state champ that didn't walk around like he owned the place. The cool thing about wrestling is it teaches kids that are already like that to tone it down.
"You don't act that way in the classroom. You don't act that way with mom and dad. But certainly when you walk on the mat, you'd better act that way, because if you don't think you're the [best] in the whole freaking tournament you don't belong there."
It's that no-fear approach Keel brings to his team, and that attitude has trickled down to his wrestlers, particularly the four who will be competing in the Group AA state wrestling tournament.
After a successful finish at last week's Region II tournament, the Hawks had four wrestlers place in the top four in their respective weight classes, granting them a trip to the state tournament. Matt Huffstickler, Levi Huston, Trevor Walker and Zach Wooddell will each have a shot at bringing home a state championship.
But what makes this foursome so special is the fact that this weekend is their last chance to capture a state title. All four wrestlers are seniors, and all of them know this is their final opportunity to represent their school and achieve their ultimate goal.
"It makes me want to try that much harder, knowing it's my last year," Walker said. "Just knowing I have one last shot at it."
Of the four seniors, Walker arguably has the most experience with the state tournament. Last season, Walker advanced to the state finals match before falling 5-0 to his opponent from Abingdon. In that match, Walker admitted he was extremely nervous and that all of the lights and fans and pressure that accompanies the state tournament had an impact on his performance.
That won't be the case this year, however, according to Walker. After experiencing it for the first time as a junior, Walker knows exactly what to expect and, more importantly, what it takes to get there.
"I have a different mind-set this year," Walker said. "I've been there before and I know what to expect. I'm just going to give it my best. I made it to the state finals last year and I plan on making it again. I've got to take it one match at a time."
While Walker is searching for a repeat appearance in the state finals, Huffstickler is just glad to be making an appearance. After going to states his sophomore season, Huffstickler's junior campaign was cut short after it was discovered he had a knee infection during districts. Huffstickler wasn't able to walk on the knee and had to spend five days in the hospital, ending his season and his shot at regionals and states.
"I've been working since my sophomore year, non-stop," Huffstickler said. "I've been wrestling for 10 years and I just really want to get a state title. [When I won regionals] I thought, 'States is coming up.' I was happy, but I'd rather win a state title."
Last weekend, however, Huffstickler made it back to states, winning the Region II title at 152 pounds. It was an important step in his quest for a state title, but as he quickly reminded, not the main goal.
"Matt is on a mission," Keel said. "The only guy he didn't pin at regionals, he tech falled. He pinned his kid in finals in a minute. That kid is probably top four in the state and he pinned him in a minute. The kid, he's done everything you could ask him to do in terms of leadership, work in the off-season. That knee infection really motivated him to get it done. You can't be any more prepared than he is."
Keel said this week leading up to states has been just like any other week, save for a few talks about what to expect and how to present yourself at the tournament. Guess how Keel wants them to act once they hit the mats at states.
"Technique, confidence, strength, you either have it or you don't," Keel said. "There's only a couple of guys in the state that are a lock. Outside of them, you don't just show up. The difference is confidence. The difference between the top four guys in the state in most of the weight classes is going to be confidence and how they handle it. It's going to be intense."