Wildcats’ Johnson fueled for redemption after controversial loss

Warren County's Nathan Johnson, right, attempts to spin out of the grasp of Lord Botetourt's J.T. Turner during the 285-pound championship match of the Group 3A state wrestling tournament last season in Salem. Johnson is seeking redemption this winter after losing the state title in controversial fashion. Brad Fauber/Daily file

FRONT ROYAL – Nathan Johnson flashes back to that day only occasionally now, the evening in February when he saw his shot at the Virginia High School League’s Group 3A 285-pound state title evaporate.

Johnson, on his way to putting a resounding stamp on his sophomore season and becoming the second Warren County High School wrestler to win a state championship at the Salem Civic Center that evening, led Lord Botetourt’s J.T. Turner 6-4 with one minute left in the third and final period of their heavyweight title bout when Johnson was slapped with his first stalling penalty by one of the two referees working the match.

A second stalling penalty would follow with 18 seconds remaining that again cut Johnson’s lead to a point, which was in turn followed by a time dispute after the clock failed to restart on the referee’s whistle after a reset in the action. When the match resumed, with 10 seconds showing on the clock, Johnson and Turner became locked in a standing neutral battle, both actively hand fighting, Turner feeling for a takedown opportunity while Johnson tried to fend him off.

Johnson gained control of Turner’s upper body, constricting the Lord Botetourt junior’s movement, in the final moments of the match. Just before the final second ticked off the clock, one of the referees raised his fist to signal a third stalling penalty on Johnson. This one awarded Turner 2 points, a 9-8 victory and the heavyweight championship.

The sequence sent Warren County coaches, wrestlers and fans into an uproar, while Johnson fought to hold back the emotional agony he felt within as tears streamed down his face.

“I think about it every once in a while now,” Johnson said Tuesday evening, a full nine months since his state tournament run came to a painfully abrupt halt so tantalizingly close to a championship. “I try not to get it in my head too much because … it’s a bad feeling.”

Johnson took three weeks off from the sport after the state tournament, which ended back on Feb. 20, because the result in Salem left him “very unhappy about wrestling.” Video of his finals match circulated on Facebook and on various wrestling websites during that time, and Warren County head coach Matt Wadas said Johnson’s parents protested the ruling with the VHSL, to no avail.

Three weeks off was all it took. Johnson returned to the mat eager to start fresh, telling himself he has two more years of high school wrestling to make right what he and many others feel was an unfair ending to a stellar sophomore season during which he went 42-6 while competing at an undersized 220 pounds in a 285-pound division.

“He did better than me, I’m not gonna lie,” Wadas said of the way Johnson handled the loss. “We joked about it in the offseason club and stuff and then it was just over. You’ll never hear him bring it up. He doesn’t talk about it.”

Instead of dwelling on the defeat, Johnson has used it as an opportunity to improve. He worked harder in the weight room to make himself stronger and increased his participation in wrestling clinics during the offseason, attending events at Ferrum College and George Mason University.

“I feel it kind of pushed me over the edge. I’ve always had the desire to get better and then when that hit I just had the thought of I must get so good that there’s nothing that can stop me, like they can’t stop me,” Johnson said.

To Wadas, the result is a noticeably different wrestler. Off the mat Johnson has embraced more of a leadership role, and his teammates voted him one of four captains for the upcoming season.

“I’ve taken more of a serious tone,” Johnson said. “I’ll still goof around because I like to have fun. I think that’s very important to sticking with wrestling and not getting burnt out. But I’ve been more serious this season, trying to make sure the younger kids won’t be getting themselves in trouble or anything.”

On the mat, Johnson, who still plans to wrestle at 285 pounds this season, has added some new fakes and shots to create some needed variety in his neutral game.

“He doesn’t wanna be the one trick pony and, if you scouted him, he had two shots that he used through the whole (regional tournament) and the whole state (tournament),” Wadas said.

“He’s definitely been working on his feet to have a few more shots. And I think his conditioning too. I think that was something where he thinks he can always get better. A lot of the big boys at heavyweight, if you can outlast them that’s another thing that can really be a bonus for your game.”

The improvements have Johnson optimistic about the 2016-17 season, not only regarding his own prospects but those of the Wildcats as a whole.

Johnson is one of four Wildcats to return to the mat this winter after reaching the state tournament a season ago, a list that also includes sophomore Hunter Jost (the state runner-up at 106 pounds last season), junior Connor Jost and senior Kevin Cruz, another of Warren County’s captains alongside classmates Seth Jacobs and Jack Kilgallen.

In all Warren County returns 11 of 14 starters from the squad that won the Bull Run District championship and placed fifth at the 3A state meet, the best finish in the program’s history.

Wadas said the Wildcats are searching for a new identity after the graduation of Zach Beckner, a two-time state champ and the school’s all-time wins leader.

“Something we’ve been working on is our mental game,” Wadas said. “We’ve been trying to do some sports psychology things in school during study hall and we kind of group up. I think the biggest thing is not to focus on performance. We’re not gonna have 10 state champions. Our goal is to get as many kids to state as possible. That’s the thing. And then once we get down there I think we’re gonna let performance finalize the results.”

Johnson is hoping his own performance this winter is enough to finish what he started a year ago.

“He wants to get back there. There’s no doubt. He wants to get back to that and finish what he feels he did last year, and he wants to get that championship again,” Wadas said. “He’s definitely motivated. I like where his head’s at.”

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