By Jeff Nations
Nic Campbell couldn't complain about his freshman season wrestling for Strasburg High School.
A sparkling 51-1 record, followed by Bull Run District and Region B tournament titles before capping it off with a Group A state championship -- no, Campbell really has little to critique about that standout year.
About that one loss, though ...
"It did suck, hearing 51-1 when you go out to the [state] finals," Campbell said. "I knew if I faced him again, I'd beat him. It didn't bother me that bad."
That lone defeat came roughly midway through Campbell's varsity campaign, in a matchup against Fluvanna's Justin Zimmerman. It was a jump up in class to face the Group AA wrestler, a jump up in weight to boot as Campbell bounced up from his customary 113-pound division to take on the Flucos' 120-pounder. And Campbell was sick that day, too.
"I wasn't feeling my best, actually," Campbell said. "He just put legs in and rode me and put me to my back."
Now wrestling at 120 pounds for the Rams, Campbell will again likely see plenty of time on the mat against heavier wrestlers. That's partly by necessity, as Campbell's talent helps fill gaps in Strasburg's lineup. It's mostly by design, though, as Rams coach Trey Kirkland seeks out the best competition possible for Campbell.
"He'll probably bump up quite often again," Kirkland said. "... Typically, we give him the toughest matches. I want to test him. If there's a kid someone says can beat him, I want [Campbell] to wrestle him. We're not trying to pad his record, give him easy matches. We want him to get up there against the best competition."
Campbell never thought he'd have that kind of gaudy record, anyway.
"I didn't think my record was going to be 51-1," Campbell said. "I thought it was going to be 30-something and 10. I thought we were going to hit a couple harder tournaments than we did."
That's what Kirkland tried to do last year, with little success. From the moment Campbell hit the mat, to face Warren County's Kyle Montague in a benefit match last year, the then-freshman's talent was undeniable. Campbell beat Montague, a senior who had placed seventh in the Group AA state tournament a year before, and he was rolling from then on.
"I finally got a take-down at the end to beat him," Campbell said. "It was pretty big, going out there beating a senior as a freshman. He was pretty tough, too. It boosted my confidence and my motivation to work harder. The next time I faced him, I majored him."
Kirkland, entering his first season coaching at Strasburg last year, didn't need much convincing to realize he had a strong wrestler on his hands.
"I was told he was good, so I was kind of watching him real close," Kirkland said. "Just his work ethic, right off the bat, kind of surprised me. That was the main thing I noticed. I figured if he wasn't good yet, with the way he was working it wouldn't take him long to be good. But luckily he was pretty good."
So good, that Kirkland was soon seeking out those tough challenges where he could find them. Campbell took on, and beat, Manassas Park's 120-pounder Ember Gaitan (fourth-place state finisher who at the time ranked second in the state) among his bump-up matches last year. The match against Fluvanna's Zimmerman was another of those tests, and for once Campbell didn't come out on top.
"We didn't want him to go through and have a lot of easy matches," Kirkland said. "We wanted to test him and see what he was made of. I talked to him and his dad, and they were both down for it. We knew there was a chance that he might take a loss, wrestling against a tougher kid that was bigger, but he wanted the experience and the tough matches."
That loss had no lasting effects -- Campbell blazed through the postseason to claim the state championship, beating the same wrestler, fellow 113-pounder Fabian Rodriguez -- for the championship at the district, regional and state competitions.
Campbell, who has been wrestling seven or eight years, learned the basics of the sport by attending a youth program put on by Troy Dean, the father of teammate Hunter Dean. From there, Campbell joined the Shenandoah Valley Elite club and has been wrestling regularly ever since.
"He picks things up really quick, and he works hard," Kirkland said. "This summer he wrestled probably 60 matches. He was second in the Mid-Atlantic Eastern National Tournament. He's wrestled in numerous tournaments, was at practice every week lifting weights just about every day over the summer.
"His work ethic and his attitude is what gives him a lot of success and really pushes him to become better."
Campbell said the natural progression of moving up a weight class hasn't been too difficult, and he's concentrated more on technique and explosiveness than counting calories.
"I feel pretty good," Campbell said. "I'm only a couple over. I can usually eat the day before the tournaments."
Campbell isn't predicting any duplicates of last season, at least as far as his record goes. Whether he loses one match, or 10, or none at all, the main thing is to win another state championship.
"We're going to hit hard tournaments this year," Campbell said. "I'm not sure if I'm going to go undefeated. I want to, but I would rather be 40-10 and win a state championship than go 50-0 and not win one."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>