By Jim Laise - email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL -- Just the way he drew it up.
That's what seemed to happen Saturday at Skyline High School as the Class 3A Hawks took down a cast of 16 schools -- most of which were larger -- to be crowned with their first Appalachian Duals championship in a home event in which coach Matt Keel seeded his team first in the two-day event.
"That's what I hoped," Keel said before his team posed with the championship hardware after a narrow 37-36 title-round victory over 6A Lake Braddock. The Bruins, seeded second in the D pool in this event, were ranked No. 8 in The Washington Post Top 10.
"I don't like to seed us first," a bashful Keel said, "but I sat down and looked at all the teams and looked at who they had wrestled against, and this is what I came up with."
Turns out he was right. Skyline went through the competition unscathed, 6-0. Saturday it took care of Centreville, some of whose wrestlers were fresh off the 6A state championship football game, 41-27; 4A Woodgrove, 41-27; and Lake Braddock by one point in the finals.
Woodgrove had dropped two-time defending champion Franklin, a 6A school, 42-30, to advance into the semifinals against the Hawks. Skyline finished third in last year's Appalachian Duals, to that point its highest finish in the then-six year history of the school. Skyline was founded in 2007.
Significantly, these wrestlers have been through Keel's system since they started wrestling, a first for him. He is the only wrestling coach the school has known.
"I was pretty confident going against Woodgrove, but I didn't know what to expect from Lake Braddock, said the Skyline coach.
The championship was not without its share of tension for Keel, his team, and a partisan crowd at the Skyline gymnasium.
The Hawks rushed out to a 25-3 lead after six individual matches, and held a 37-15 advantage after Tristan Stone produced a pin by fall in the first period of the 220-pound match, when Lake Braddock forged back.
The visiting Bruins won the final four matches of the finals to close within one. Most disheartening was that one of the Skyline wrestlers failed to make weight. This gave the Bruins an easy six points.
"That was disappointing. You want everyone to make weight," said Keel. Other than that, though, it was a memorable event for a coach who organizes a number of major events, including the Skyline Elite Opener.
In that event, Skyline finished eighth out of 12 teams. "But that's one of the strongest fields in Virginia," the coach said.
Skyline was not the only local team that seemed to accomplish its goals.
Strasburg, a 2A school, ran its record to 3-3 on the two days.
"Look, we're one of the smallest schools here. Our senior class is about 130, so we come here to prepare. We feel like wrestling against these bigger schools will get us ready for the year; so that when we meet schools in our own division, we'll be that much stronger," Ram coach Mike Wood said. "I expect us to be better the next time out, and I think we'll surprise some people by the end of the year.
Wood, a veteran of 24 seasons as a wrestling coach, took over for the departed Trey Kirkland after last season. Kirkland and Keel were the Northern Virginia Daily co-coach of the year. Admittedly, he stepped into a good spot.
A year ago, Strasburg sent eight wrestlers to the Group A state tournament where the Rams finished runner-up. Four of those grapplers returned.
Wood said he was pleased that he could field wrestlers in each division.
"Some of the teams on our level have a hard time doing that, so we're happy we can compete," said Wood.
Central, which finished 0-5 in the event, is one such.
"It was a rough two days," said Falcons coach Roger Barbee. "We came in forfeiting five matches on Friday. Then we had two injuries so we weren't able to field seven [Saturday]. But we wrestled better [Saturday] than we did Friday. "We're here for the competition."
So, obviously, is Skyline.
With his knack for developing this team from the start, Keel said he is feeling confident.
"We're pretty good. I think the strength is they act like a team," he said. "We've had our younger wrestlers really do well, and that has helped us too.
"I've got to commend Dustin [Santmyers], Noah [Goss] and Tristan [Stone]. Tristan had a big win for us against Centreville [at 220]. That was big," Keel said.
Pools were seeded prior to Dec. 18. On Friday, teams were placed in groups and each squad wrestled three matches. On the second day, the top two from each group moved into the top bracket, while the bottom two from each group were placed in the bottom bracket.
Competing in this event were 6A Franklin County, Centreville, Osbourn, Annandale, Lake Braddock and Stafford; 4A Jefferson Forest, Loudoun County, Woodgrove, E.C. Glass and Handley; 3A Skyline, Central and Kettle Run; 2A Strasburg and private school, Bishop O'Connell.