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Posted March 12, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Keel, Kirkland deliver winners

By Brad Fauber

FRONT ROYAL -- Skyline wrestling coach Matt Keel admits he suffers from a small case of kleptomania when it comes to uncovering new coaching tips to pass on to his wrestlers.

"I'm just trying to make a living stealing from every expert that I talk to," Keel said. "I feel like I can probably count on one hand the number of moves that I've made up. I don't feel like I've made anything up. I think everything that I teach I've learned from somewhere."

No one is safe from Keel's sticky fingers, as he has picked the brains of seemingly everyone who has crossed his path from the moment his wrestling career began at Saint Cloud High School in Saint Cloud, Fla.

First there was Lee Sill, a well-established wrestling coach who led Saint Cloud during Keel's high school career. Then there were the books by four-time world wrestling champion John Smith, Olympic gold medalist Dan Gable and former NFL head coach Tony Dungy. Keel has snatched ideas from former Fauquier wrestling coach Bryan Hurst, whom Keel assisted for two seasons, and even former Millbrook coach Chris Haines.

"I've stolen stuff from [Hurst], I've stolen stuff from Chris Haines. That's the beginning, the list goes on," Keel admits. "I'll steal stuff from anybody. If I feel like somebody is doing something better, I'll steal it in a heartbeat. I think I steal from anybody who's willing to talk to me."

Keel might have found the recipe for wrestling success, although he may not be able to claim full responsibility for it.

All of the knowledge that Keel has captured and stored over the years helped him lead Skyline's wrestling program to a new level this past season. Keel, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2012-2013 Wrestling Co-Coach of the Year, led the Hawks to their first Northwestern District title in the school's six-year history, as well as a school-best second-place finish in the Region II wrestling tournament. Strasburg's Trey Kirkland also earned Co-Coach of the Year honors.

The Hawks were an impressive 16-1 in duals matches this season, including a perfect 4-0 in the district regular season. Skyline's only duals match loss came at the hands of Loudoun County during the Hawks' own Appalachian Duals in late December.

While the success or failure of Skyline's matches ultimately came down to how well the Hawks' wrestlers performed on the mat, it was up to Keel to put his wrestlers in the best position to not only help themselves, but help the team as a whole.

As a result, Skyline's wrestlers did a lot of shuffling throughout the season, as many individuals bumped up a weight class multiple times during the season in order to create the best possible match-ups.

It's a strategy that Keel has used throughout his six-year career at Skyline, but it's also one that comes with some risk.

"Moves work great when you win," Keel said with a laugh. "When you lose, then you've lost because of that. And that's a risk you take as a coach. For years now I've moved people around, and our goal at a dual meet is to win the dual. We are a team ... and I'm going to do the best I can to put kids in spots that will enable us to do that."

Keel wasn't the only area coach to lead his team to a successful season, as Kirkland led the Rams to a stellar 2012-2013 campaign.

Under Kirkland, the Rams finished as the runner-up in the Group A state tournament in Salem and also claimed the Region B title. Strasburg's performance at the Region B tournament earned Kirkland the honor of Region B Coach of the Year.

Strasburg was forced to wrestle short-handed for much of the regular season before the Rams gained momentum in the postseason. Strasburg boasted five individual Region B champions, and that success carried into the state meet.

The Rams sent eight wrestlers to the Group A tournament and had three wrestlers earn state titles in Salem, as sophomore Hunter Dean (106), junior Nic Campbell (120) and senior Kent Cadle (132) each topped the podium for the Rams. Strasburg finished the Group A tournament with 128 points, behind state champion Grundy's 143.

Kirkland has since resigned as Strasburg's head wrestling coach and was unavailable for comment.

Skyline also was well represented at the Group AA tournament, as the Hawks sent six wrestlers to the state meet.

Keel said Skyline set goals prior to the season that included winning the district and regional championships, and placing in the top five as a team at states. The Hawks fell short of the top five at the Group AA meet, as Skyline finished 12th with 43 points, but the Hawks did have a bright spot in senior Justin Williams (220), who won the school's first wrestling state title.

"We left some points on the mat at states. I think we underperformed a little bit and I think our kids know that," Keel said. "I think Justin [Williams] is proud of his season, and he should be. [Senior] Tyler [Ritter] did an outstanding job -- I'm very proud of what he did for this team. Both of those guys can hold their heads up, and I think the other four [state qualifiers] have something to motivate them."

Skyline returns a lot of experience next season, and Keel said the Hawks have a realistic shot at cracking the top five at next year's state tournament.

In order to do that, Keel will once again have to draw upon his ever-growing stash of stolen wrestling techniques and tips to help steer Skyline in the right direction. But as Keel knows, Skyline's success next season -- as it was this season -- will be based on the combined effort of a large group of people, not just the efforts of a few.

"A hundred good people make a great program. It's the wrestlers, it's the families, my assistant coaches, the administration, the athletic director, the principal, the athletic trainer," Keel said. "There is a lot of people involved in the success of this program, I'm just part of it. I'm along for the ride."

Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com


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