Inexperienced Rams wrestling for future but expect growing pains along the way

Strasburg's Patchrick Kennedy, a freshman, watches a match during his team’s quad meet on Wednesday December 20. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG – Strasburg High School’s wrestling team enjoyed great success during the first four years of Mike Wood’s tenure as head coach, due in large part to a key group of grapplers that formed the nucleus for the Rams over that span. But take a peek at this season’s roster, and you won’t find many familiar faces.

Wood admits it: The 2017 Rams are thin when it comes to experienced varsity wrestlers, the result of the absence of a youth feeder program – which currently boasts over 70 members – in Wood’s first season in 2013.

Following Strasburg’s home opener on Wednesday evening, a four-team event that included Millbrook, Riverheads and William Monroe, Wood said the Rams’ starting lineup could include as many as eight freshmen and four sophomores throughout the season.

“In 25 years, I’ve had a couple teams like this but a couple years after that they were really good,” Wood said. “So it’s one of those things, you’re gonna have to lick some wounds and live to fight another day and get better.”

Some of Strasburg’s roster turnover was expected. The 2016-17 senior quartet of Dylan Campbell, Austin Cooper, Ethan Duckworth and Josh Pritchett all graduated after combining for eight individual regional championships, 11 state tournament appearances and a state title during their four-year run with Wood.

Strasburg's Alec Campbell paces as he awaits for his 145 lb. match during a quad meet on December 20. Rich Cooley/Daily

Some other losses were not expected. Brandon Sisk, who won the Rams’ lone state title a year ago as a junior, moved to Pennsylvania; Austin Miller, who reached the state tournament in his first wrestling season last year, switched back to basketball for his senior year; Greg Mason, another senior, chose not to come out for the wrestling team after starting as the Rams’ 152-pounder last year; and Strasburg’s would-be starting heavyweight, junior Levi Miller, suffered an ankle injury during football season that will keep him off the wrestling mat this winter.

When Strasburg traveled to Turner Ashby for its first tournament of the season last weekend, the Rams felt the sting of their youth, placing 11th out of 19 teams.

“It’s one of those things that I’ve gotta keep things in perspective,” said Wood, whose Strasburg teams have finished no lower than third place at the Class 2 state tournament in each of his first four seasons. “The other day I was really bent out of shape and upset because we didn’t do well at TA. But I had to look again and say that’s seven freshmen, four sophomores, a little inexperienced. Placing five, I guess we didn’t do that bad in that picture. So yeah, I’ve gotta get things in perspective, I’ve gotta calm down a little bit.”

On Wednesday night the Rams went 1-2 in their home quad, picking up their lone win in a 48-28 victory over William Monroe while earning 30 points via forfeit. Strasburg, which forfeited three weight classes, fell to Millbrook, 50-28, and Riverheads, 45-30.

“We only lost those matches by 20 points but we gave 18 and we’re wrestling two kids that have only been on the mat for six weeks,” said Wood, referring to sophomore 170-pounder Luke Jenkins and freshman 195-pounder Patchrick Kennedy.

One varsity newcomer, freshman 126-pounder Jaylon Burks, shined for the Rams on Wednesday night, finishing 3-0 with a trio of first-period pins.

The rest of Strasburg’s success came primarily from its handful of returning starters. Senior 220-pounder Austin Summerlin joined Burks as the only other 3-0 wrestler and finished with two pins. Sophomore Peyton Stickles (120 pounds) went 2-1 with a competitive 5-2 loss to Riverheads junior G.W. Schultz, a defending Class 1 state champ. Senior Javian Moore won a pair of matches (via forfeit and a pin) at 182 pounds before bumping up to 195 at the end of the night and falling to Riverheads senior Alex Diehl, a 2016 state champ and 2017 state runner-up.

Despite the growing pains Strasburg is bound to experience throughout the season, it doesn’t sound like Wood’s expectations have drastically changed. He said he still hopes to contend for the Bull Run District title and battle for a Region 2B championship, and even be in position for a state runner-up spot behind Poquoson, a squad Wood views as the runaway favorite to claim the Class 2 state title at the end of the season.

“Our expectations are to try to hold steady, not lose too much ground from where we’ve been,” Wood said. “Strasburg is a great place. The fans are tough. They expect you to win, and it comes back on me ultimately as a head coach. I try to keep those expectations up but I’ve gotta remember too, I’m working with, basically, it’s like having a toddler, teaching them to walk. And I’m not meaning it in a bad way, but we are, we’re trying to learn how to walk.”