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Stonewall Jackson junior 145-pounder Hunter Cowart, right, drills with teammate Lance Dorman during practice on Thursday afternoon.

QUICKSBURG – When talking about the strides junior Hunter Cowart has made on the wrestling mat during his time with Stonewall Jackson’s varsity squad, head coach Jerry Franklin said he’s seen this type of progress before.

Cowart’s older brother Kyle began his own Stonewall wrestling career in similar fashion. The elder Cowart started with an unremarkable freshman season in 2012-13 but placed seventh and fourth at the state tournament in his next two seasons. Problems off the mat kept Kyle Cowart from competing as a senior, but Franklin said on Thursday that he was primed for a state title run that year.

Hunter Cowart also started out with a pedestrian freshman season, one that ended with a seventh-place finish at the Region 1A/1B tournament in 2018. He made a tremendous leap as a sophomore, though, and was the 2019 region runner-up at 132 pounds and was Stonewall’s only state medalist when he took fifth in the Class 1 tournament last February.

“I just really think he’s just maturing,” Franklin said. “I can’t wait to see what happens this year, but I think next year is gonna be – he’s almost taken the same footsteps as his brother. His brother was mediocre his freshman year and then his sophomore year he really started to excel a little bit and then his junior year he really stepped up.

“His junior year (Kyle Cowart) really excelled, and then when he stepped up for his senior year it just seemed like his mind was like ‘I want this.’ And I think that’s what (Hunter’s) starting to do, his mind is like ‘I want this.’”

Indeed, Hunter Cowart has his sights focused on big things in 2020, primarily because of the success he had as a sophomore.

“My goals changed,” he said. “Last year my goal was to make it to states. This year my goal is to win states. I just want to keep progressively getting better as I go along.”

There are obstacles in the form of opposing wrestlers that loom ahead for Cowart, who is competing at 145 this winter, as the postseason draws near. Franklin said the biggest of those in Region 2B (Stonewall moved up to Class 2 this year) include Stuarts Draft’s Asher Coffey, who placed third in the Class 2 state tournament at 132 pounds last season, East Rockingham’s Dalton Shifflett, Clarke County’s Alvaro Wong and Strasburg’s Zach Asher, who beat Cowart in a dual last week.

Cowart, who is 20-5 this season, said that of his five losses, only one – his setback against Asher – has come against a fellow Class 2 opponent. Heading into the Big Red Invitational at Riverheads on Saturday, Cowart said he hasn’t yet faced any of the other wrestlers he’d have to get through to win a regional championship.

“I have good kids in my weight class but anyone can be beat,” Cowart said.

“My expectation is still to get first because I know anybody can be beat. No matter what, all I just have to do is be better than what I am (now), just keep progressing throughout the year.”

Cowart said as far as technique, his primary focus this season has centered around his shots. That, and trying to break a bad habit with his hips.

“He gets in trouble with his hips because he loves riding legs,” Franklin said. “I always say he’s lazy, he’s lazy with his hips, he won’t keep his hips up. He just gets lazy with them and that’s his only downfall. … If I’m in the corner, the only thing I have to holler is ‘Hips!’ and he does, he knows his hips will come up because he just gets lazy with them.”

Cowart, who said he began wrestling around nine years ago when his brother first picked it up, was hooked by the sport’s individualistic nature.

“You can’t rely on anyone else,” said Cowart, who added that he played baseball and football when he was younger but no longer participates in either sport. “If you lose, it’s your fault. If you win, it’s your doing. It’s just an individual sport. It makes you feel more proud of yourself.”

Though he enjoys that solo aspect, Cowart’s impact on Stonewall’s program has started to expand beyond his personal achievements on the wrestling mat. As one of the few Generals with significant high school wrestling experience, Cowart is a team captain alongside fellow junior Lance Dorman and said he tries to push his teammates in the room every day for the betterment of the program.

Franklin said Cowart and Dorman are even to the point where they’ll run practice and work the Generals through drills on their own. It’s that type of work, Franklin added, that may have contributed to Cowart’s success last season, when he posted a record of 35-14.

During the 2018-19 season, Stonewall was in similar need for leadership, particularly after Dorman – a region runner-up and third-place state finisher as a 106-pound freshman two years ago – suffered an injury that kept him out the entire season.

“When Lance got hurt last year, (Cowart) had to actually take over, teach some of the kids some stuff and take over teaching,” Franklin said. “I’m thinking maybe that’s probably what it was, he tried to take a leadership role and maybe that carried on into his success over the postseason.”

For Cowart’s desired trend of progress on the mat to continue this postseason, Franklin said the junior will need to continue to develop that mental part of his game.

“I’d like to see him in the finals for both of them,” Franklin said, referencing the Region 2B and Class 2 tournaments. “He has the heart and I think he has the athletic ability. It’s just as long as his mind catches up with the rest of him, is where it needs to be. I think he can do well. Once he gets past a couple humps and he gets his confidence having a couple big wins, that’ll take over and I think he’ll just ride that momentum.

“I’m hoping he does qualify for states. If not, I know it’s gonna break his heart. I mean it’ll kill him. If that does happen, he’ll be in that room any time I’ve got open mats,” Franklin added, pointing to Stonewall’s practice room. “He’ll be in there any time I’ve got open mats after that, even though he probably will anyway. I really think if he works hard he’ll be fine.”

– Contact Brad Fauber at bfauber@nvdaily.com