Answering the bell: Campbell uses adversity as fuel for historic run

Strasburg's Nic Campbell, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2015 Wrestler of the Year, won the Group 2A 132-pound state wrestling championship this past season to become the first wrestler in school history to win four state titles. Brad Fauber/Daily file

STRASBURG – Nic Campbell admits it. He got too comfortable on the wrestling mat during his senior season at Strasburg High School.

That sort of thing can happen when you lose just one match out of 143 during the first three seasons of your high school wrestling career. And Campbell says that’s exactly what happened early this past season, when the most decorated wrestler in Strasburg history had an experience that simply wasn’t “normal.”

First came Campbell’s loss at Wilson Memorial’s Hornet Duals, Strasburg’s second tournament of the season. A week later, he suffered three more defeats during the Appalachian Duals at Skyline High School. Then came two more losses at the Powerade Christmas Wrestling Tournament in Pennsylvania, widely regarded as one of the country’s most prestigious high school wrestling events.

When Campbell suffered his seventh loss of the season in the 132-pound championship at the Mayhem at Millbrook tournament on Jan. 3, he’d had enough.

“Pretty much after Millbrook it just started to hit me that it wasn’t normal,” Campbell said recently. “I needed to start working harder.”

Campbell’s solution? No more days off.

The day after the Millbrook tournament — a Sunday — Campbell went to Walker Wrestling’s Stephens City location to put in some extra work on the mat. He would end up spending every Sunday at Walker Wrestling, a private club, for the remainder of the season.

“We would have school practice Monday through Friday, a tournament Saturday and then I would go to practice on Sunday. It was just that little bit that I needed to get back on track after my shoulder surgery,” Campbell said, referring to the procedure he had done to repair a torn labrum last April that sidelined him from all wrestling activities until October. “Missing like half a year, it just takes a lot longer than what I thought. Unfortunately it took a couple losses to figure that out, but I’m glad I finally realized it.”

When that realization hit, Campbell returned to true form.

He went unbeaten over the final two months of the 2014-15 season to finish the year at 52-7. He was second in the area with 37 pins. He went unscathed through postseason competition for the fourth straight year, grabbing individual titles in the Bull Run District and Region 2A East tournaments along the way. And he capped off arguably the area’s single most successful high school wrestling career by winning the Group 2A 132-pound state championship, his fourth state title in as many seasons.

Campbell, the only Strasburg wrestler to win four Virginia High School League state wrestling titles and one of 21 in the state to ever accomplish the feat, according to the VHSL Book of Records, is The Northern Virginia Daily’s 2015 Wrestler of the Year for the second straight year.

“It was a good year. More losses than I thought I would get, but overall it was good. Probably one of my hardest-working years ever since my freshman year because I just got comfortable,” Campbell said.

Though the early losses this past season were frustrating for Campbell — made even more so by the fact that he ended his high school career with a record of 194-8, six wins shy of 200 — he said he was fortunate to get them out of the way early enough that he could learn from them in time for the postseason. In fact, that was the plan for Strasburg second-year coach Mike Wood, who wanted to prepare Campbell for his record-setting state title push as well as his future collegiate wrestling career at George Mason University.

“When I knew he was going to sign Division 1 I told him, I said, ‘Nic I’m going to bump you up. I’m going to put you against the toughest kids. Win or lose you need to prepare for the postseason and college life,'” Wood said. “And that’s what we did, bumped him up against bigger kids, very high-caliber kids.”

Of Campbell’s seven losses this season, three came against out-of-state competition (two at the Powerade tournament) and his four losses to in-state competition came against wrestlers from schools from a higher VHSL classification. Campbell lost matches against 6A foes Ryan Haskett (Lake Braddock) and Alex Joya (Annandale), who finished second and third at 126 pounds in the Group 6A state tournament, respectively, and another to eventual 126-pound Group 3A state champ Brandon Robinson (Northside).

“He’s better for it,” Wood said. “Sometimes losses are good. Sometimes they open your eyes. Sometimes they make you work harder. He responded well and he never let that bother him.”

Campbell, who hadn’t lost a postseason match in his first three seasons, continued that trend this past winter, beginning with his fourth Bull Run District title, which came over Manassas Park’s Zach Treuting, that helped lead the Rams to a team championship in the tournament. He also went unbeaten in the Conference 35 tournament, which was set up in a dual format, to help Strasburg win a title in that as well, and his regional championship win via pin over Clarke County’s Brendan Ciaburri led the Rams to a runner-up spot in Region 2A East.

At the condensed Group 2A state tournament in Salem, Campbell pinned his way through his first two matches before beating Ciaburri by tech fall, 19-2, for the 132-pound title.

Campbell’s fourth state title is the pinnacle of a career filled with milestones, and he listed his first state championship as a freshman in 2012 and his 100th career victory last season among the numerous postseason championships as his fondest achievements.

But what has allowed Campbell to pull off what only a select few in the state have ever accomplished on the wrestling mat? He cited his offseason work — which generally includes a whirlwind of tournaments from the local to national level — and his devotion to wrestling seven days a week this past season. But most of all, Campbell credited his career-long wrestling success to his father, Jeffrey.

“He’s really who got me to this point,” Campbell said. “He’s always been my biggest critic and my biggest fan. He’s just always pushing me, and he lets me know when I did something wrong. And if I lost a match that I shouldn’t have he’s always right there on my back. He’s the one who kind of pushed me to that point where I should start working. He’s the one who made me realize that this wasn’t me. He knows that I’m better than what I think I am and he definitely sees it.”

With Campbell’s career-long quest for high school history now behind him, he can turn his attention to preparing for his collegiate career at George Mason. Campbell is expecting a challenge, which he’ll likely get trying to balance his class work (Campbell will major in civil engineering with a minor in environmental engineering) and his Army ROTC commitment with wrestling. But he knows it’ll all be worth it in the end.

“It’s just amazing. I could do anything I want right now,” said Campbell, who plans to serve extensively in the U.S. Army Reserve after completing his required four years of active duty as a part of his ROTC scholarship. “I just can’t wait until college is over and I can get my life started. I just know that all the hard work that I’m going to put in in college is going to pay off.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com