FRONT ROYAL — Jacob Grady made his varsity wrestling debut for Skyline in 2015 as a self-described fat, scared 160-pound freshman who was “petrified” of everyone he faced off against in the circle.

He went 10-27 with five pins for the Hawks that season, missing out on any kind of postseason success that could’ve carried momentum into the next winter. Things started to turn in a positive way for Grady regardless.

As a sophomore Grady went 39-19 with 19 pins as the Hawks’ starting 170-pounder, and he placed second in the Conference 28 tournament and seventh in the Region 3A East championships. Last season continued that trend of progression, as Grady finished the year 42-17 with 32 pins at 182 pounds, placed second in the Class 3 Northwestern District, third in Region 3B and qualified for the VHSL Class 3 state tournament for the first time.

By the time Grady’s senior season rolled around this school year, his days of being the frightened freshman were long behind him, and that timid mentality was replaced by one of courage and confidence.

“Now I’m where I’m beating everybody,” Grady, again Skyline’s starting 182-pounder, said on Tuesday evening. “I’m going out there, I’m gonna be the best. I think that has to do with just (Skyline first-year head coach Kyle) Symons brings a whole new vibe to the practice room. It’s like ‘we will be the best in the state, we will be better than everybody’ and that’s kind of where I picked it up. I believe it. I believe I can beat anybody in the state right now. I believe I can be the best.”

Few have been better than Grady on the mat this season. Heading into the Virginia Duals in Hampton this weekend, the senior is on pace for a career year with a 32-2 record and 21 pins. He’s won two major individual tournaments — the Northwestern District competition in mid-December and the Mayhem at Millbrook tournament last weekend — and has gone unbeaten in the Andrew Kenney Memorial Duals and the Appalachian Duals.

Even Grady’s losses have been to quality competition. One came against Fauquier junior Sam Fisher — a two-time VHSL Class 4 state champ and an All-American at the United States Marine Corps Cadet/Junior Nationals last summer — at 195 pounds in the Elite Opener on Dec. 1 and the other against Alex Ward of Class 6 Battlefield High in the Battle at the Bridge at the end of December.

Grady’s a better wrestler from a physical standpoint than he’s ever been — more work in the summer, primarily on becoming more effective in neutral, has seen to that. But his success this season has deep roots in his mental growth, and Symons said Grady’s greatest asset has been his self-assuredness.

“I think it’s a confidence in everything, not just confidence in the way he’s wrestling,” Symons said. “A confidence in the culture that we’ve created here, a confidence in the way that he trains everyday, a confidence that he knows he’s outworking everyone else. He feels like he’s outworking everyone in the state and as long as he feels that way and he’s confident in the way that he can wrestle on the mat, then he believes he has a chance to win, which is saying a lot because he’s never placed at the state tournament before and I know he’s only qualified the one time.”

A prime example of Grady’s mental growth on the wrestling mat came at the Northwestern District tournament earlier this season.

In the bout for the 182-pound title, Grady squared off with a familiar foe in Culpeper County’s George Moseley in a physical battle during which Moseley was penalized twice — once for an illegal hold and again for a late shove as both wrestlers went out of bounds — in Grady’s 3-0 win. Grady also was shaken up after getting slammed to the mat in the second period.

“When he was head-butting me and hitting me hard and stuff, my freshman, sophomore year I would’ve lost my head and I probably would’ve started swinging,” Grady said. “But now I’m to the point where I’m solid, I can keep my head and keep my cool and I just pushed through the match.”

Grady pairs that winning mindset with a physical ability that makes him a handful for opposing grapplers. Symons said the Hawks emphasize pushing the pace to challenge the mental strength of their opponents and scoring at the rate that they’re capable of scoring regardless of the circumstances in each match, and Grady does that as well as anyone in Skyline’s wrestling room.

“He’s a 182-pounder that can move like he’s a 145-pounder. That’s the biggest thing,” Symons said. “He can overwhelm guys. He’s incredibly strong for his size. Even though he’s short for the weight he’s incredibly strong. Like when we’re wrestling live with him here, he’s a load. He’s hard to move and he’s hard to take down, he’s hard to score on. When he grabs hold of you and gets to his upper body stuff, you feel it. And he pushes and he pushes and he pushes and he finds ways to score.”

Each tournament Grady takes part in during the regular season, he said, is a stepping stone on his journey back to the state tournament.

Simultaneously driven by his desire for his first state title and to be the best leader he can be for the Hawks as the team’s only senior, Grady admitted he’s surprised by the level of success he’s experienced this season even though he’s done the legwork to achieve it.

“I won a lot more matches than I thought I was gonna win,” Grady said. “It shows in the room. I push past my limits. I discover a new limit every day and I have to give a huge shoutout to my practice partner (junior 220-pounder Ethan Gue) for pushing me to be even greater.”

Grady’s goals for the end of the 2018-19 season are obvious — he wants to stand atop the 182-pound podium at the region and state tournaments — and he plans to stick to the formula that has placed him in the discussion as a legitimate state title contender.

“I’m not changing anything,” he said. “I’m gonna practice, I’m gonna push to my limits, I’m gonna go past my limits. I’m gonna push to where my body can’t go anymore. I’m gonna be ready for everything thrown at me. I’m just gonna keep going, keep thriving, keep wanting to go forward.”

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