For Skyline head wrestling coach Kyle Symons, there was a scene in particular that perfectly summarized what was a key part to a milestone season for the Hawks.
The moment happened during Skyline’s home dual against cross-town rival Warren County at the end of January, during which Hawks senior 152-pounder Anthony Domino had suffered what was surely a disappointing loss in a competitive bout against Isaiah Frame.
An image captured by Renee Robinson, the mother of Hawks senior Morgan Robinson, shows the scene on Skyline’s bench just a few bouts later. In the photograph, sophomore 182-pounder Alex Sotelo, who would eventually hold on for a gutsy 9-5 win, is trying to put Warren County’s Ty Boyles’ shoulders to the mat on the edge of the circle nearest Skyline’s bench. Skyline’s coaches are lined up on the edge of the mat and in the middle there is Symons, bent over, hands on his knees, yelling something toward Sotelo.
Between Symons and assistant coach Brian Scott, right up against the edge of the mat, is Domino, clapping his hands and cheering his teammate on.
“Honestly the biggest thing outside of the success rate these guys had was how close they were to each other. They were really tight-knit,” Symons said of Skyline’s 2019-20 season.
“Just all year long, the guys would come in, push each other every single day. The work rate was there. If guys were down and out, be it with sickness or whatever, they were encouraged to still be able to come in and put in the work that they could. It was just a great atmosphere all around, not just the wrestlers but the coaching staff as well. Everybody pushed each other to accomplish some great things.”
On the heels of the best state tournament finish ever for Skyline’s wrestling program, the Hawks put together their best season to date in Symons’ second season at the helm.
Skyline was 23-1 in duals, the only loss coming at the hands of Great Bridge, the 2019 Class 4 state champ and eventual 2020 state runner-up, at the Virginia Duals in January. The Hawks won the Class 3 Northwestern District regular-season championship, claimed the Region 3B title -- the program’s first -- in dramatic fashion on Dathen Montoya’s pin in the heavyweight championship -- the final bout of the tournament -- and placed third at the Class 3 state tournament on the strength of nine all-state medalists, both program records.
For his efforts in guiding Skyline to previously unattained heights, Symons is the Northern Virginia Daily’s 2020 Wrestling Coach of the Year for the second straight season.
Skyline’s achievements weren’t a surprise. The Hawks entered the season with a group of seniors that had already accomplished a great deal on the mat, and Skyline’s lineup was further bolstered by three talented freshmen and some lesser-known returnees that Symons said made great strides in the offseason. Skyline’s loaded lineup had the Hawks realistically aiming for their first state title.
The key was getting the Hawks to make good on their lofty goals, and Symons said the coaching staff places a priority on effectively communicating the team’s expectations to keep its collective focus on the task at hand.
“I’ve always felt that if you communicate expectations with the kids and the work rate’s there for it, they can reach whatever goal you put in front of them. It’s just a matter of them understanding what it looks like,” said Symons, who praised the work of assistant coaches Scott, Stephen Boyle, Mike Carlson and Carter Barnett. “It’s easy for kids nowadays, especially with different types of technology and things like that where they can lose focus on what they’re trying to do or they think that it’s already done. Our guys did a good job of keeping their heads on straight and knowing that we had to put the work in to accomplish the things that we were looking to accomplish, or else we were gonna get knocked off along the way.”
Establishing Skyline’s expectations in Year 2 under Symons was an easier task, the head coach said, because the team knew what the program was supposed to look like after a 2018-19 season in which the Hawks placed fourth in the state.
Symons said the Hawks had great leadership, and not just from the seniors. Skyline doesn’t place a “captain” title on any of its wrestlers, Symons said, and instead relies on each of its wrestlers to assume some level of leadership.
“It’s a sport itself where when the whistle blows, you’re out there by yourself, so if I can’t expect you to go out and be a leader for yourself, how am I gonna expect you to be able to do that from a team standpoint?” Symons said. “We try to push that narrative across and get guys to where they can not only lead what their individual training should look like, but also be able to lead each other. And I think a lot of that’s probably what led to the togetherness that the team had, because they all felt that they had a very important role in what our success looked like.”
Graduation will swipe five of Skyline’s nine 2020 state medalists, including Robinson and Brandon Ahlemann, who rank first and second in the program in career wins, Domino, Wyatt Spiker and Ethan Gue, a group that Symons said played a huge role in getting Skyline to the “culture point” it wanted to be as a program.
But as Symons said, the cupboard isn’t bare. Skyline’s two state silver medalists -- freshman Hunter Salomon (106 pounds) and junior Tyler Davis (126) -- were both underclassmen, and freshman Phoenix Alyea (third at 113 pounds) and Montoya (sixth) both placed in Salem. Freshman Dustin Gue (170), sophomore Josh Domino (120) and juniors Brayden Williams (145) and Chris Moin (195) also competed in Salem as state qualifiers.
Symons said Skyline, which finished behind Class 3 powers New Kent and Christiansburg at the state tournament, is hoping to accomplish even bigger and better things next season.
“It’s a process. These guys know that and we have some very good guys coming along the way,” Symons said. “Hopefully not only will we be able to place higher at the state tournament next year, the goal is to make sure we have some guys that win as well. We’re getting closer to where we want to be. Nine state placers is great, but the sad fact is nine state placers was only good enough for third place, so we’ve got to do better and that’s what we’re looking to do.”