By Brad Fauber
STRASBURG -- Last season, Hunter Dean wanted to put the disappointment of a runner-up finish in the 2012 state wrestling tournament behind him, which he did by winning the Group A 106-pound title as a sophomore this past February.
This season, the Strasburg High School junior is facing more than the challenge of repeating as a Virginia state wrestling champ. No longer willing to cut the weight necessary to compete at the 106-pound level, Dean is bumping up a full four weight classes to 132 pounds this winter.
The large jump has required Dean to adopt a different approach on the mat this season, but the junior is more than ready for the challenge.
"You've got to more aggressive at upperweights, because at 106, most of those kids are freshmen and sophomores. Now that I'm bumping up, it's juniors and seniors and that's like the thick of the lineup, is 120 through 145," Dean said. "That's all the tough weight classes. So really you've got to be more physical on the mat and you can't slow down at all.
"It's going to be a bit of a change for me because I'm more of a methodical, technical person. Hopefully I'll be able to adjust to it. I'm looking forward to it. It's a different change for me and it should be a good challenge."
Dean is coming off a stellar sophomore season in which he went 55-1, winning Bull Run District and Region B titles before beating Nottoway's Josh Lafferty via a 12-3 major decision in the state tournament in Salem.
His only loss of the season came to St. Christopher's Joey Prata in Millbrook's annual tournament in January.
Dean currently holds a career record of 99-6, and he narrowly missed winning the 106-pound title his freshmen season, when he lost in a 5-1 decision to Parry McCluer's Corbin Woods.
Dean used that loss as motivation last year, and he became one of eight Rams to advance to the Group A tournament, where Strasburg was the runner-up behind state powerhouse Grundy.
Strasburg, under the guidance of new head coach Mike Wood, returns four of those state qualifiers this season, with juniors Nic Campbell -- a two-time state champ at 113 and 120 pounds -- and Marco Gallagher, and senior Tyler Drummond joining Dean.
Wood has already named those four as the Rams' team captains, and Dean is eager to step into the role as one of Strasburg's leaders this season.
"My two previous years I was always looking up to other people, and now it's like switched roles," Dean said. "People are looking up to us. Hopefully we're doing the right things to lead them on the right path.
"It's something that I've wanted for a while, because looking up to [past leaders], I always thought that they were the people that you wanted to be. It's cool to fill their shoes."
With Dean making the jump in weight classes, it has become as important as ever for him to focus on weight training, and Wood made sure Dean realized that when he first took over the job back in late June.
Dean hasn't disappointed, and he attributed the workout program run by Rams assistant coach Frank Cooper as the main reason he has reached his current 225-pound bench press mark.
Wood said he has been impressed with Dean's work ethic so far, but he hopes to see Dean become more aggressive in his new weight class.
"Technically, he's a solid kid. His attitude's really good. He's a hard-nosed kid. His biggest thing, and he knows it, is that we want to work on him being more offensive," Wood said. "He tends to be more on the defensive side, which isn't bad at all, but you need to open up, and we've been working on that -- the team as a whole, I want them to be going after it. I don't want them to be on their heels."
Dean's bump up to 132 does come with a hitch, however, as Campbell is also slated to wrestle in that division. Wood said there will likely be competition between the two throughout the season to determine which weight class each will compete at in meets, with the winner likely wrestling at 126.
That's not necessarily a bad problem to have, and it speaks well of the available depth that the Rams will have in their lineup this season. In fact, Wood said this year's Strasburg team is "probably the best group that I've walked into" in 24 years of coaching high school wrestling.
Wood said the Rams will not forfeit any weight classes this season as he plans to use a full 14-man roster in each meet. That means Wood will rely on freshmen in the heavier weight divisions, an area that Strasburg has generally forfeited in recent years.
Strasburg opens the 2013-14 season on Saturday in the eight-team Orange County Duals, and Wood said the goal is go 5-0 in the meet.
Dean said he has his eye on another individual state title, which would come in the new Class 2A division if he should make it that far, and he also hopes to reach 200 wins by the end of his career. But Dean's ultimate goal is to win a team championship, which hasn't been done at Strasburg since the 1999-2000 season.
"We're definitely in the running," Wood said. "If we can stay healthy, keep our noses clean, keep our grades up ... then it's up to us. If we fall short it's on us. It's on me as a coach."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD