Rams thrive in Wood’s second season

Mike Wood

Strasburg’s wrestling team faced adversity right from the start this past season.

Before the season even began, the Rams knew they would be without Eric Reynolds (torn ACL) and Marco Gallagher (home school), two Group 2A state tournament qualifiers last year whom Strasburg head coach Mike Wood said had the potential to be top four placers in this year’s field. The Rams lost another starter to academic eligibility midway through the season and had to battle through the general wear and tear that exists each year.

And yet through it all, Strasburg never faded. The Rams (30-5 in dual matches) successfully defended their Bull Run District and Conference 35 championships, nearly did the same with a runner-up finish at the Region 2A East tournament and finished among the top three teams in the state for the third straight season.

“I’m really proud of the guys because they battled through that early-season adversity there,” Wood said recently. “The guys didn’t get down or they didn’t get an attitude to where, oh we lost a couple key guys, we’re not going to be successful. They battled the adverse conditions and we still were right in the mix.”

For his efforts in helping Strasburg navigate those challenges this season, Wood has been named The Northern Virginia Daily’s 2015 Wrestling Coach of the Year for the second straight year.

It wasn’t all tough sledding for the Rams during the 2014-15 season, however.

This past winter marked Wood’s second year as Strasburg’s head coach, meaning the Rams were attacking practices at full speed much quicker than last season, when the coaching transition necessitated a period of getting acclimated to a new system.

“We had that year and the core was back that knew that system, so it was easier to get into a full swing,” Wood said. “Plus we tweaked some things from the prior year, some technique things, some match situation things. The familiarity just really helps to make everything smoother.”

Wood said he and assistant coach Frank Cooper worked to instill a more aggressive approach in the Rams on the mat this season, with a heavy emphasis being placed on getting them to attack more on their feet while employing more hand fighting and running attacks at an angle instead of straight on.

Strasburg’s coaching staff also went back to some of the basics, Wood said.

“We really spent a lot of time on going back to some old-school stuff, simple half, running spiral halves, running bar halves. It really paid off,” he said. “I believe we had quite a few more pins this year than we did last year, and most of our pins come off of a half nelson. Just simple, good, solid, basic wrestling.”

The Rams appeared to thrive in that system this past winter, as Nic Campbell (37 pins), Hunter Dean (36), Austin Cooper (30), Bradlee Hodson (28), Josh Pritchett (24), Kyle Sisk (24), Dylan Campbell (21), Ethan Duckworth (20) and Garrett Richards (20) all finished with at least 20 pins.

Naturally, that ability to put opposing wrestlers on their back led to great postseason success for the Rams, who boasted four individual district champions and four regional champions in 2015.

Strasburg qualified six wrestlers for the Group 2A state tournament — the most of any local school in any Virginia High School League classification — and left Salem with three state champions: Cooper (113 pounds), Nic Campbell (132) and Dean (145). Nic Campbell’s state title was his school-record fourth, while Dean capped his career with his third state championship.

Wood said the Rams were disappointed they didn’t qualify a few more wrestlers for the state tournament, but he was happy with the consistency the team showed with its third-place finish behind state champ Clarke County and perennial powerhouse Grundy.

“Last year we were second. This year we were third. I can say at least we’re staying very consistent. Even graduating a bunch of good kids each year we still stay very consistent.

” … We lose some key guys and we still battle back,” Wood said. “This year we’re losing a bunch of seniors but we’re returning 10 or 11 very solid guys. We’ll still be in that top three mix next year again, more than likely.”

Wood already began planning for the future this past season when he beefed up Strasburg’s regular season schedule with tougher competition, which included a trip to Pennsylvania at the end of December for the prestigious Powerade Christmas Wrestling Tournament.

Strasburg placed last in the 48-team field that featured schools from all over the country, but Dean did place seventh in the 145-pound field of 41 wrestlers as the only Ram to medal at the event.

Wood, a native of Pennsylvania who coached at Derry (Pennsylvania) High School for 10 years prior to moving to Virginia, said he hopes to have Strasburg finishing in the middle of the pack at the Powerade tournament within the next three years.

“It’s just going to take a little bit of time to get the adjustment of strength of schedule, but if you look at any great program, look at what they wrestled during the year. That is almost harder than the postseason,” Wood said. “And that’s how you become successful. You’ve got to put them through the grind. Put them through the grind and they’ll raise their level at the end.”

Strasburg will graduate seven seniors off this year’s squad, including the school’s two winningest wrestlers in Dean (210-11) and Nic Campbell (194-8), but Wood is encouraged by the amount of young talent the Rams should retain over the next few seasons.

“They’re starting to get our system, coach Cooper and myself, that hard-nosed, technical system. That’s starting to really come together and you can just see them developing from last year to this year. And it’s only going to get better year-to-year because every year we’re going to return a nice core of kids,” Wood said.

“By year four there it’s going to put us in a really nice spot to be right in the mix to win one [state title], hopefully. We were there close the last couple years, but as it goes hopefully we’ll get one here in the next few years.”

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