FRONT ROYAL -- When Kyle Symons was announced as Skyline’s new wrestling coach last June, he said at the time that he was stepping into a program that was, from a structural and proven-talent standpoint, already built for success. After just one face-to-face interaction with his new wrestlers, Symons was ready to aim high in his first season as a high school head coach.
That first meeting with the Hawks came shortly after Symons was announced as the second wrestling coach in Skyline history. Former head coach Matt Keel, who had held that position since the school’s opening in 2007, was on his way out the door but was preparing the Hawks for a final trip to the Disney Duals in Florida in late June.
Keel invited Symons to join the Hawks in the practice room during the final week of preparation for Disney, the latter recalled recently, and following that Monday’s practice, Keel handed Symons the reins for the rest of the week. Symons remembered thinking after that Tuesday’s session, his first running a practice for Skyline, that “something really good was going on here.”
It was just a matter of getting the right people and the right plan in place to pull that full potential out of the Hawks, Symons added.
“We were able to introduce a whole different level of training to these guys and a different mentality and work ethic, things they may not have been exposed to previously,” Symons, The Northern Virginia Daily’s 2019 Wrestling Coach of the Year, said. “They all bought in and were able to accomplish a lot of things.”
The 2018-19 season will go down as one of the best in the 12-year history of Skyline’s wrestling program.
The Hawks, who won the 11-team Mayhem at Millbrook tournament during the regular season and finished with a 17-7 record in duals, were the Region 3B runners-up -- the second time in program history Skyline has placed second in a regional tournament -- and were fourth at the Virginia High School League Class 3 State Championships, the team’s highest finish ever.
Four Skyline wrestlers -- sophomore Tyler Davis (113 pounds) and juniors Brandon Ahlemann (126), Anthony Domino (145) and junior Ethan Gue (220) -- won regional titles (the Hawks had 11 regional champs in their first 11 seasons), and six wrestlers -- Davis (third), Ahlemann (fourth), junior Morgan Robinson (fourth, 138 pounds), Domino (third), senior Jacob Grady (third, 182) and Gue (fifth) -- placed at the state tournament.
Symons, who had previously served as an assistant coach at Millbrook (his alma mater) and Musselman (West Virginia) high schools, spoke all season of the Hawks “buying in” when referencing the mounting success. The biggest area of cooperation, he said, was the establishment of a clear set of expectations.
Chief among those expectations was the demand that the Hawks get better in the practice room on a daily basis. Do that, Symons remembered telling his wrestlers, and the team would be where it wanted to be at season’s end.
“We preached that we were gonna outwork everyone,” Symons said, “and being able to outwork everyone, you can say that you do that but you have to actually go into the room believing that you do. And I think that led to some of our success too at the state tournament, where we were knocking off some of these top programs, in individual matches anyway, and we were able to climb up to fourth because they believed that they were better than other people just based off of their work ethic.”
To ensure Skyline’s expectations were properly communicated, Symons and his assistant coaches -- Brian Scott, Tucker Velez and Mike Carlson -- addressed the team before and after each practice. The topic of those discussions varied depending on the day, Symons said, but they typically involved a detailed look at that week’s goals at the onset of practice and a breakdown of the day’s work at the end. The wrestlers were given a chance to add input, as well.
Rarely, Symons said, did Skyline’s coaching staff have to halt practice in the middle to address a dip in work rate.
“They were hungry to compete and hungry to get to a certain level and hungry to be a better version of themselves than they were in the past,” Symons said. “It kind of all worked itself out and just was kind of a perfect storm type situation where they molded. And I think a big thing too is I think there weren't any cliques within the team. They’re all best friends.”
At the same time, Symons added, the Hawks were competitors in the practice room.
“We were at the point there at the end of the year where even on sprints and cardio-type stuff at the end of practice, they wanted to win every single one,” he said. “It just became a competition amongst them. So if they’re competing with each other at a high level, they’re obviously gonna be able to compete with other teams at a high level. It’s easier for them to be able to get up for those types of matches. We’ve kind of instilled that competitiveness amongst them and it worked out.”
That friendly rivalry paired well with a loaded schedule -- in addition to hosting the Elite Opener, Skyline traveled to the Battle at the Bridge tournament at Woodbridge, the Virginia Duals in Hampton and the WSAZ Invitational in West Virginia -- to prepare the Hawks for the stage at the Class 3 state tournament in Salem.
“If you have a good schedule and you’re wrestling the right type of competition, eventually these guys get pushed,” Symons said. “… It’s hard to get through our schedule and be undefeated, and honestly, if we have somebody that is, either they’re one of the best kids that I’ve ever seen or we’re not doing our job in terms of putting them in positions to be tested.”
Symons said he expects a Skyline squad that loses only one senior to graduation to maintain that same competitive drive next season.
“It’s not gonna change, it’s not gonna get any different because we’ve got kids coming in next year that have the same things that are instilled in them on a daily basis, and they wanna be a part of the program and they wanna compete at a high level and they wanna come in next year and be better than the guys we have now,” he said. “It creates a competitive desire amongst our entire team where not only do they support their teammates, but they also wanna be better than the rest of their teammates. It’s nice. It’s good to see that competitiveness.”