Male Athlete of the Week: Johnson thriving at heavyweight for Wildcats

Nathan Johnson

FRONT ROYAL – Warren County High School wrestling coach Matt Wadas assumed he knew who would be the Wildcats’ heavyweight wrestler this season.

Sophomores D.J. Almarode and Nathan Johnson both began preseason practice in November at 220 pounds, but Almarode seemed like the safe bet to bump up to the 285-pound weight class. After all, Almarode was the football player with the bigger build, and he’d wrestled at 220 pounds last year, while Johnson spent his freshman season at 182. But not long after the start of the season, Wadas began noticing something – Johnson appeared the more natural fit at the heavyweight position as a wrestler who prefers a slower pace with more hand fighting.

Johnson and Almarode noticed it too and approached Wadas about swapping positions, a move Johnson said Tuesday evening he wanted to make so the entire team would benefit. Wadas obliged.

Two tournaments into the season, Wadas was completely sold on the switch when Johnson beat the defending Region 3A East tournament champion, Elijah Boldin of John Champe, 12-10 in their heavyweight bout during the Andrew Kenney Memorial Duals at Sherando on Dec. 11.

“That’s when we kind of thought hey, maybe they’ve got something to it,” Wadas said.

Aside from the occasional dual match where Johnson and Almarode “just wanted to switch around for fun,” Johnson said he has remained at the heavyweight spot all season for the Wildcats. And though Johnson is often giving up 50 or 60 pounds to his opponents, the 285-pound class has served him well.

In the Bull Run District tournament last Saturday at Warren County, Johnson, The Northern Virginia Daily’s Male Athlete of the Week for Jan. 25-31, pinned his way to his first district title in the 285-pound class while helping the Wildcats to their first district team championship since 2005.

Johnson, who weighed the heaviest he has all season (222 pounds) at the district tournament, started his day by pinning Central senior Corwin Gonzalez (4:29) and Clarke County’s Jacob Peace (1:57) in the first two rounds before pinning Madison County junior Eric Cashman (3:14) in the finals. Cashman entered their bout with a record of 38-6.

“The day before the tournament coach was like, ‘Nathan, you’ve got a tough guy in your weight class. He’s got a really close record to you, watch out for him, look him up online,’ all that stuff. So I was pretty hyped about that. I’m like yeah, I’m ready to face a tough guy,” Johnson said. “I ended up going in there, I did well. I wrestled him, and at first he got a takedown and that was a little surprising at first to me. Then I dominated him from there and it made me very happy that I was able to show how much I was worth.”

Johnson has proven a valuable commodity for Warren County all season long, as his exploits over the weekend improved his season record to 32-4 with 20 pins, despite running into an opponent who is significantly heavier and stronger than him “at least once per week,” he said. It’s that challenge that keeps Johnson persistently sticking at heavyweight, even after Almarode went down with a season-ending injury two weeks ago.

“I have to work really hard just to not get myself caught or pressured by their immense weight and strength,” Johnson said of his 285-pound opponents.

And although Johnson put on 40 pounds since last season – which he packed on with a strong dedication to the weight room, Wadas said – the sophomore said he hasn’t changed his style much. Johnson said he still wrestles like he did at 182 pounds, and Wadas added that Johnson’s strong neutral game and penchant for taking shots makes him a tough matchup for heavier opponents.

What has changed, however, is Johnson’s ability to eliminate what he called minor mistakes that ultimately led to him coming up just short of a state tournament appearance at the Region 3A East competition a year ago.

“I was one point from making it to state. It devastated me and it’s driving me to go to states this year,” Johnson said.

“There was a lot of clutch situations last year where it was a really close match and I would just fumble around or get taken down at the last second, or just give up silly points, like locked hands and stuff,” he added. “This year I’ve been giving up almost none, and that’s really all that makes me better than last year is I don’t give up anything, don’t give up any points.”

Next up on Johnson’s to-do list is a Conference 28 title, which he’ll have a chance to get when Warren County hosts the eight-team tournament on Saturday. He said he’s expecting the usual challenges he’s faced all season long against heavier and stronger competition, but he added he’s also got the proverbial target on his back after going unbeaten in the Conference 28 duals earlier this season.

“I’ve wrestled them before and I’m ready to bring it,” Johnson said.

Wadas said the district championship was a good confidence builder for Johnson, who started to show some growth from the “goofy freshman” he was last winter.

“He liked that role, he liked to be the goofball, and I think this weekend he got serious,” Wadas said. “I watched him warm up before the match and he didn’t have that normal smile and goof. He was pacing back and forth, and I think he’s starting to understand that that’s the role he’s gonna need to grow in to be a leader on the mat. He can still be goofy but when it’s time to get on the mat he turned it on and I was real proud for him.”

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