By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- In the eyes of Skyline wrestling coach Matt Keel, the difference between the Justin Williams who entered the program as a 189-pound freshman in 2009 and the Justin Williams who will leave this year as a 220-pound state champion is so much more than simply the 31-pound weight difference.
During Williams' freshman season, Keel said, his opponents would try to intimidate the young wrestler, and Williams "would kind of stop wrestling and he would just want to get physical."
But that approach gradually gave way to a more mature mentality, and as Williams grew older and more experienced on the mat, his approach began to evolve.
"One of the big transitions was composure -- being able to get people out of their game without getting out of his own game," Keel said, "without getting out of his own head and still stick to the mission of winning the match instead of beating the other guy up. He really grew with his composure a lot through the years."
That growth helped Williams to a fifth-place finish last year as a junior at the Group AA state wrestling tournament, but Williams knew that if he wanted to make the leap to the top of the podium, he would need to make yet a few more changes.
And Williams did.
"Just over the last year, year and a half, he became coachable," Keel said. "He'd listen to me, he'd listen to coach Brian Scott. He'd listen to these guys who had really taken a vested interest into helping him out, and you could see it."
Yes you certainly could.
Williams put together the best season ever for a wrestler in the six-year history of the Skyline wrestling program. Williams, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2012-2013 Wrestler of the Year, rolled to a 47-2 record this season, and he said he knew from the moment he won Skyline's Elite Opener tournament on Dec. 1 that he was in for a special season.
Williams was right, as he went on to claim a multitude of other notable victories throughout the season, including first-place finishes in the Turner Ashby Holiday Tournament, Northwestern District tournament and the Region II tournament.
Williams then capped off his impressive senior campaign with a second-period pin over Waynesboro's Wayne McKenzie to claim the Group AA 220-pound state title in mid-February.
Remarkably enough, Williams pinned every opponent he faced in the postseason from the first round of the district tournament to the state title match. In his 10 postseason matches, Williams needed just 23 minutes, 12 seconds out of a possible total of 60 minutes to claim his 10 wins.
Williams' state championship was the first ever by a Skyline wrestler, and it was a great way for Williams to end his high school career after devoting the past several years entirely to the sport.
Williams said following his freshman season, he began to hit the weight room frequently, and he stopped playing football and baseball to focus solely on improving his wrestling.
"After freshman year, in my sophomore year and junior year, I lifted all season pretty much, didn't cut any weight. I didn't cut any weight this year either. I just lifted hard and wrestled all offseason," Williams said. "I played other sports my freshman year. I quit those and just wrestled for three years straight."
That devotion was as much a key to Williams' success this season as the adjustments he made to his mental preparation.
During his high school career, Williams has been a frequent participant in various offseason wrestling tournaments throughout the country. In the offseason leading up to his senior year, Williams participated in events such as the FloNationals tournament in Philadelphia, Pa., the Super 32 in Greensboro, N.C., and the AAU Wrestling Scholastic Duals (also known as the Disney Duals) in Orlando, Fla.
Williams said that the experience he gained by competing in large national events helped him when he got ready to compete in the Group AA state tournament in Salem.
"You've got to get out there and find competition, go to bigger events and everything - it helps you out a lot at states," Williams said. "You go to tournaments where there are 12 mats down, then you go to states and there are four for double-A and four for single-A, so you just try to go to bigger tournaments and states don't seem that big."
Keel praised Williams' willingness to seek competition against some of the best high school wrestlers in the country, calling Williams one of the hardest working wrestlers he's ever coached.
"One thing about Justin that stands out is that through the last three years he's traveled more than anybody on the team," Keel said. "That's really been his mentality - he will go and wrestle anybody, anywhere, anytime. He's never been scared of anybody; he's never backed down."
Williams will continue to wrestle this offseason as he prepares for a possible future as a collegiate wrestler. Williams plans to wrestle once again at FloNationals and a few other events, but the highlight of his offseason experience is coming up soon as Williams will compete in the Dapper Dan Wrestling Classic in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Sunday.
The Classic is a an all-star event which features some of the best high school wrestlers in the country, and Williams was chosen as a member of Team Virginia shortly after winning the state title last month. Keel will join Williams at the event, as Keel was chosen as Virginia's head coach.
Williams is undecided about his plans after high school, but the senior said he is currently leaning towards attending the Newport News Apprentice School of Shipbuilding, where he would wrestle for coach Bruce Shumaker and the Builders. Williams said former Skyline wrestler Shane Smith is on the Apprentice School team, and Smith encouraged the Builders' coaching staff to take a look at Williams.
"[Smith] told their coach about me, and then their coach called me and asked if I wanted to wrestle," Williams said. "I told him I would think about, and now I'm looking more into it. It's a good possibility."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com