Damian Tapia

QUICKSBURG – The real deal doesn’t start for Stonewall Jackson’s wrestling team for another week, but the Generals can gain some valuable experience heading into the postseason with one final tune-up this weekend.

Stonewall hosts the nine-team Shenandoah District tournament beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday, and though the pressure of claiming a top finish to extend their playoff lives is off – all of the Generals will compete in the Region 1A/1B tournament at Mathews on Feb. 8 and 9 – now is the time that head coach Jerry Franklin said his wrestlers need to sharpen their skill against good competition.

Stonewall took that same approach at last week’s 12-team Big Red Invitational at Riverheads, its first individual tournament of the season. The Shenandoah District tournament is the Generals’ last chance to work out any kinks before the playoff tournaments that really matter.

“Everything’s up a level, up a notch now,” Generals junior 126-pounder Damian Tapia said on Monday. “Now we work 10 times harder. We don’t have many people to drill with anymore. The eighth-graders are gone now; it’s just all the varsity (wrestlers), so we’ve gotta give it all we’ve got in practice now.”

With just six healthy varsity wrestlers on its roster this winter, Stonewall won’t contend for the district’s team championship (the Generals, with seven wrestlers, placed fifth out of eight teams in last season’s Shenandoah District tournament and trailed champ Wilson Memorial by 135.5 points). But a few of the Generals should at least be in the mix for individual gold on Saturday.

Of Stonewall’s top three wrestlers – Tapia, sophomore 132-pounder Hunter Cowart and senior 170-pounder Udreka Claude — Claude likely represents the Generals’ best shot at individual gold.

Claude is a two-time defending regional champion who placed fifth in the Class 1 state tournament at 170 pounds last season. According to Franklin, Stonewall wrestled head-to-head against every district team during the regular season, and Claude won each of those bouts, outside of a loss to East Rockingham’s starting 160-pounder.

Claude placed third in the district tournament last season.

“I’ve wrestled most of these guys before but (I need to) keep getting better, so I’ll just keep on my toes,” said Claude, who was hampered by a finger injury at the start of the season but enters Saturday with a record of 24-4.

“I learned how to go with (the injury), learned how to use it,” he added. “I’m not as worried about it right now. I have a lot less on my mind than I did at the beginning of the season.”

Tapia, who will look to improve on his sixth-place finish at last year’s district tournament, has taken major strides this winter while turning a .500 record as a sophomore into a 28-8 mark this season, but he likely faces a daunting road to the top of the district podium on Saturday.

Franklin said Riverheads senior G.W. Schultz, a 2017 Class 1 state champ and the 2018 state runner-up, will stand in Tapia’s way in the 126-pound bracket and his hope is for the Stonewall junior to place in the top three.

“My expectation’s just to get as far up as I can, just wrestle my heart out,” said Tapia, who did not wrestle Schultz on his way to fourth place at the Big Red Invitational last weekend. “I mean yeah, districts is pretty important but regionals, that’s where it’s at right now. That’s my main priority. But districts, yeah, it’d be nice get first. Anything can happen.”

Cowart, who is 28-9 at 132 pounds this season, placed fifth in the Shenandoah District tournament as a freshman last season and figures to have “two or three really good kids” in his bracket this weekend, Franklin said.

“I’m gonna try to go for first,” Cowart said. “That’s gonna be my No. 1 expectation of myself, personally. That’s all I can give.”

Contact Brad Fauber at bfauber@nvdaily.com