Bush eager to bounce back on wrestling mat after seesaw junior season

Stonewall's Dakota Bush, right, is tangled with Rural Retreat's Ben Sowers in the Group 1A 285 lb. state title in Salem last February. Bush fell in the state championship match. Rich Cooley/Daily

QUICKSBURG – Last season, from start to finish, was full of ups and downs for Stonewall Jackson High School wrestler Dakota Bush.

He began the 2016-17 campaign, his junior season, weighing 320 pounds, not nearly light enough to compete for the Generals in the heavyweight class at 285. When Bush finally did return to the mat in an official capacity last January – a month into the season – he enjoyed tremendous success, a run that included a Region 1A East title and a romp through the VHSL Group 1A state field that ended with a spot in the state finals.

Once he got to the state heavyweight championship, however, Bush’s season ended on a bitter note. Bush was penalized three different times in his match with Rural Retreat’s Ben Sowers – twice for what the referees deemed illegal blows to Sowers’ head, rulings that Bush and Generals head coach Jerry Franklin still disagree with nine months later, and once for locking his hands for a total of four points awarded to Sowers – en route to a 5-3 loss.

As Bush brought up that match on Thursday afternoon, the disappointment of the outcome was still visible on his face.

“I look at it every day,” Bush replied when asked how often he thinks about last year’s state title match. “I use it as motivation, because I mean losing in the finals, going through all that stuff to get there and lose, it brings you down but I use it as motivation. I want to go back to finals my senior year.”

The 2017-18 campaign has only just begun – Stonewall Jackson competes in its first tournament of the season on Saturday at Waynesboro – and yet it’s already different for Bush.

Where last year at this time he was 35 pounds overweight – Bush admitted Thursday he “chilled,” lifted weights and gained muscle preparing for football season in 2016 and knew he was in trouble when he stepped foot on a scale when wrestling season rolled around – Bush has been determined not to make the same mistake his senior season.

He’s changed his eating habits, ditching the large meals he used to consume for smaller portions that he eats more frequently. He competed as a thrower on the school’s track and field team last spring in order to keep himself in shape, and instead of piling on mass for football season, he kept a watchful eye on his weight.

“This year I was actually keeping that (in check),” Bush said of his weight. “I brought a scale from my house and kept checking my weight after each (football) practice.”

It also helped that Franklin gave Bush an ultimatum – if Bush wanted to be a captain for the Generals’ wrestling team in his final high school season, he needed to make weight for the season opener.

Two days before Stonewall’s first tournament of the new season, Bush weighed 270 pounds, the lightest he’s been since his sophomore year. As a result, all signs point to Bush being a more well-rounded wrestler this winter, as he’s added more mobility without sacrificing the power that led him to a 20-4 record last year.

“He has quickness. He’s lighter on his feet even now, and then as the season goes on our practices are gonna get more and more harder as it goes along. He’s gonna lose more weight, he’s gonna be quicker,” Franklin said. “I want him to learn to shoot like (former Generals heavyweight standout) Lucas Ryan did for us. Lucas, when he won his two state titles, he shot everybody. He just kept shooting on everybody. That’s what I want (Bush) to do, so we’re trying to teach him how to shoot.”

And while Bush has slimmed down physically, he’s grown in other areas.

“I evolved as a person,” Bush said. “My junior year especially, I learned hard work. … I learned mental toughness, honestly.”

Franklin, who said Bush is a more mature person than he was last season, noted that Bush’s lessons in work ethic are showing in the practice room, where he has fully embraced the role as a team captain alongside fellow senior Caleb Fauver.

“He’s come a long way,” Franklin said of Bush. “He was a big teddy bear for a long time. He just didn’t have no loud speaking about him. Now he at least wants to speak up. He’s coming out of his shell now, I think. Hopefully that’ll help him down the road this year.”

Bush, who said he hopes to get another shot at Sowers this season as he pushes for another state final appearance, will get a challenge right out of the gate on today as Franklin said Bush would square off against Western Albemarle heavyweight Jacob Jackson, who placed fifth in last year’s Group 2A state tournament.

“I don’t wanna lose this year, obviously,” Bush said. “I wanna go undefeated, that’s my biggest goal. Go to states. I wanna pin everybody again like I did. And then eventually have a state title. That’s my ultimate goal.”