By Brad Fauber
STRASBURG -- Mike Wood has been coaching wrestling a long time, and he has guided some pretty successful high school teams during his 24-year career.
Wood coached wrestling at Derry (Pa.) High School from 2001-2010, during which he amassed a 100-55 record in dual matches, the second-most wins in the school's history. He also helped develop a handful of individual state champions during that span and consistently led Derry to the playoffs from year to year.
But Wood said none of his previous teams -- no matter how successful they may have been -- match up the one he coached during his first season at Strasburg.
"I can honestly say this is the best group of kids that I've had in 24 years, and I've had some really good teams in Pennsylvania," Wood said of the Rams. "These guys, from the way they act in school to the way they act on the road, their grades, the way they work in the wrestle room -- just overall, these guys are probably the best group I've ever had. I can honestly say that. They are really good kids. I had no issue with grades, no issues with getting in trouble. They were just a really good group."
The Rams were pretty good on the mat, too.
Strasburg sent an area-best nine wrestlers to the Group 2A state tournament in Salem on Feb. 21 and 22, and the Rams finished as the state runner-up for the second straight season behind perennial powerhouse Grundy. The Rams also had two individual state champions in juniors Nic Campbell (126 pounds) and Hunter Dean (132 pounds).
Though a team championship ultimately eluded Strasburg, the Rams' march to the Group 2A tournament was a highly successful one.
Strasburg finished the regular season with a 34-3 record in dual matches. In addition to winning several dual meets during the regular season, including Strasburg's home tournament in early January, the Rams claimed team titles in the Bull Run District, Conference 35 and 2A East Region tournaments.
Wood, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2013-14 Wrestling Coach of the Year, said Strasburg accomplished nearly every goal it set at the beginning of the season.
"It went pretty much the way I wanted it to," Wood said. "... One thing that eluded us was winning a state title ... that bothers me. It will bother me all year. Now I've got to wait another year. I feel bad for the kids and for the fans. I was hoping I could bring that back here. They did a great job, the kids worked hard, the fans were fabulous -- I have to give the fans a lot of thanks and credit."
Wood said the Rams adapted much quicker than he expected to the brand of wrestling that he wanted to implement at Strasburg. One of the biggest changes that Wood instilled was that he almost entirely eliminated the concept of live wrestling in practice in favor of a heavy focus on drills to help teach proper technique.
The longtime coach said the benefit of the switch was noticeable in Strasburg's younger wrestlers, as well as more established grapplers like Campbell and Dean.
"We wrestled all season long in our wrestling room less than an hour of live wrestling," Wood said. "We drilled, drilled, drilled. We were drilling every day for an hour, hour and a half. If you drill properly at match speed, your conditioning falls into place. Of course we do our certain conditioning drills, but I'm a big believer of very little if no live. It keeps the injuries away. It doesn't reinforce bad habits."
Wood also placed an emphasis on filling out a complete lineup in each dual match this season, something that Strasburg hadn't done in recent years due to lack of depth, particularly in the heavier weight classes. Wood said the Rams forfeited an individual match just once in their 37 dual matches, giving them a distinct advantage against teams that struggled to fill out their own lineups.
It also gave some of the younger Rams some valuable mat time, and that experience should help Strasburg next season. Seven of the Rams' nine state qualifiers will return next year, and though Strasburg will lose seniors Tyler Drummond -- who finished third in the state meet at 160 pounds -- and Thayer Norris (285 pounds), the Rams will return a strong core of seniors that includes their two state champions and Marco Gallagher, a fourth-place state finisher at 145.
Three of Strasburg's state qualifiers this year were freshmen -- Kyle Sisk (106), Dylan Campbell (113) and Josh Pritchett (195) -- and sophomore Eric Reynolds (120) has two more seasons to build on his sixth-place finish in the state tournament.
"We're going to be a better team next year," Wood said. "Not taking anything away from Tyler Drummond, Thayer Norris or Dalton Dillman, our three seniors ... it's just that we're going to be a little more mature. We've got some young guys that will fill their shoes. We've got some guys coming up who are going to help us, so we're going to be a better team, balanced next year."
Wood, who said he plans on coaching at Strasburg for a "long time," is in the process of setting up some offseason camps for the Rams, with the primary focus on preparing Strasburg for another shot at its first state wrestling title since 2000.
"If we don't win a state title next year it's pretty much shame on me for not directing them in the right way," Wood said. "If we stay healthy and keep working the way we are, and the kids keep their attitudes the way we are, we should finally get one. I really believe that."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD