2016 Wrestler of the Year: Beckner leaves lasting legacy

Warren County's Zach Beckner works on Clarke County's Bayne Gordon during a wrestling match earlier this season. Beckner, Warren County's first two-time VHSL state champ, is the Northern Virginia Daily's 2016 Wrestler of the Year. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Zach Beckner will graduate from Warren County High School as the most decorated wrestler in Wildcats’ history.

He became the program’s first two-time Virginia High School League state champion when he won the Group 3A 126-pound title last month. He’s the school’s all-time leader in career wins (159). He’s a three-time Bull Run District, three-time Conference 28 and three-time Region 3A East tournament champion, and he’s ranked as the top 126-pounder in the state’s six high school classifications by the Virginia Wrestling Association.

He’s experienced defeat on the mat at the high school level just four times – a good thing since Beckner despises losing. Hates it. In fact, as Beckner swiveled anxiously in an office chair in a conference room at WCHS recently while conjuring up vivid memories of his first wrestling loss in his second middle school match, the rising frustration in his voice was palpable.

“You’re getting bothered by that right now, aren’t you?” Wildcats coach Matt Wadas cut in with a laugh as Beckner recalled being head-dragged in the third period by a kid from Floyd T. Binns Middle School, a move that would leave Beckner pinned to the mat, the first of only three times that’s ever happened to Beckner in his wrestling career.

Yes, Beckner remembers every defeat, and he still loathes each of them. Except for one – the reason he started wrestling five years ago.

Warren County's Zach Beckner controls Cave Spring's Sam Ring during the 126-pound championship at the Group 3A state wrestling tournament on Feb. 20 in Salem. Brad Fauber/Daily

“I lost a bet,” said Beckner, the Northern Virginia Daily’s 2016 Wrestler of the Year.

As a kid, Beckner never envisioned being a wrestler in high school, let alone that he would accomplish things that no other wrestler in the program’s history before him would accomplish. He was always a baseball player who enjoyed what he calls the “normal” sports. But then came the bet.

He was an eighth grader at Warren County Middle School, about to try out for the basketball team, when he and his friend Jacob Schneider made a friendly wager. If Beckner made the basketball team, Schneider had to try out for the track and field team in the spring and give Beckner $20. If Beckner got cut, he had to join Schneider on the wrestling team.

“I was the last person to get cut,” Beckner said, “like they had a 15-man roster and I was the 16th person and I got cut. I was like, ‘crap.’ Then I went out for wrestling.”

Beckner was an instant hit.

“I went down to the see the middle school (team practice),” Wadas recalled, “… (and) this kid, I don’t remember his name, he comes running out crying and runs into the bathroom. And I was like, ‘Who the heck was that?’ And they said ‘that Beckner kid has been only wrestling two weeks and just beat him. He’s been wrestling three years. He just lost his spot.’

“That’s a true story isn’t it?” Wadas then excitedly asked Beckner. “That is exactly how (it happened). And I was like, ‘Woah this kid might be something. Alright.'”

Hooked by the adrenaline rush on the mat, Beckner stuck with wrestling. He went 20-4 in his first year with the middle school team and spent most of his freshman season at Warren County High School sharing the starting 106-pound spot with Tyler Barisciano before eventually being relegated to the Wildcats’ B squad late that year.

Beckner earned the starting job his sophomore year and suffered his lone loss of the season in the Group 3A 106-pound state championship final. He’d come back to win state champions his final two seasons, including the 126-pound title in a 12-3 win over Cave Spring’s Sam Ring on Feb. 20.

In his final season with Warren County this past winter, Beckner went 49-2 (both of his losses came in the prestigious Beast of the East tournament in New Jersey) with 21 pins. He passed Trey Kirkland as the school’s all-time wins leader with his Bull Run District championship finals win, a 20-5 dismantling of good friend Bayne Gordon, who would go on to win his third Group 2A state championship for Clarke County last month.

Beckner marched his way through the postseason, dominating his way to Conference 28, Region 3A East and Group 3A tournament titles, all fantastic achievements to close out an illustrious high school career, but just a blip on the radar for Beckner.

“They’re stepping stones,” Beckner said. “They’re cool to have but it’s not what I want. I mean it is what I want, but it’s not the cream of the crop. It’s just another step to keep going. I’ve just gotta keep going. That’s the only thing. I can’t stop, I’ve gotta keep going.”

So … when exactly will Beckner be satisfied?

“When I’m an All-American in college,” he said without hesitation.

Everything Beckner has accomplished on the mat in his career has been a step toward something bigger. Even when he won his first VHSL state championship in 2015, he wanted more. It was no longer about winning the title. It was about winning the title and dominating while doing it.

“It basically gave me the mindset of, ‘OK, well this year I don’t wanna let anyone touch me,'” Beckner said. “And I don’t mean it in a cocky way. I’m just saying I wanted to go out there and put a beatdown on kids, and I just wanted to separate myself from the field. It gets college attention if you’re beating ranked kids in the state by 13 points. And that’s what I wanted. I didn’t wanna settle for a six-nothing win. I didn’t wanna settle for sub-par wins.”

A self-proclaimed “goon” with a colorful personality, Beckner is all business on the mat and in his preparation. He studies for his upcoming matches.

Shortly after his eighth-grade wrestling season ended, Beckner began looking into national tournaments to keep him occupied during the offseason months. When he discovered FloWrestling he began watching film of the best wrestlers in the nation to see what made them successful, and he would research the best in Virginia because “those are the kids that I wanted to come after.”

He became a student of the sport, learning to break down matches into three-second segments – what are the patterns in his opponent’s footwork? Is he a clubber? Is he a hand-fighter?

“I wanna master every position you can find yourself in wrestling and that comes from me breaking down film, my own film, other people’s film,” Beckner said.

Beckner is focused less on the accolades and hardware and more on the execution of his technique on the mat, a trait Wadas said separates Beckner from all of the other high school wrestlers Wadas has coached in his 10 years with the Wildcats.

“That’s an awesome thing for an athlete,” Wadas said. “When you talk about great athletes and you hear all these quotes from great athletes, they’re all talking about performance is the key. The medal is nice … but that’s not what drives him.”

What’s driving Beckner now is a chance to continue his wrestling career in college, preferably at a Division I program. Though Virginia Tech hasn’t offered him a scholarship – and he doesn’t expect one to arrive any time soon – Beckner said the Hokies have expressed heavy interest in having him spend the next four years in Blacksburg, and Tech resides at the top of his list.

Whatever the future holds, Beckner left a lasting legacy on Warren County’s wrestling program – and vice versa.

“I wouldn’t change it for anything else,” Beckner said. “It’s just something you’re gonna look back on when you get older and you’re just gonna be like, ‘yeah, good job.’

“But it’s not over,” he quickly added. “It’s not over. There’s more to come.”

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