By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, Va. —
Graham wrestling coach Tim Woodward would like to be able to fill a bus for the drive to Salem Civic Center and the 2A state wrestling tournament late in February.
“Our goal every year before we start the season is to get as many kids as possible qualified for the state tournament because for some of them it is a once in a lifetime experience,” said Woodward, entering his 28th year as head coach of the G-Men. “Everyone that gets to go, it really makes an impression on them and they really enjoy it.
“It is something they will remember the rest of their lives.”
Two wrestlers had that opportunity last season, with Dustin Hagerman finishing fourth in the 113-pound weight class, while Everett Vest was seventh at 220 pounds. Hagerman was a two-time state qualifier, who won 176 matches over the last two years for the G-Men. Vest won 125 matches, and placed twice in state competition.
Graham finished 28-2 last season, finishing first in the Mountain Empire District for a second straight year, along with fifth place in Region C.
“It was a very successful season,” said Woodward, whose G-Men were 57-2 over the last two years.
Seven seniors, including Hagerman and Vest, have graduated, meaning the G-Men has newcomers wrestling in six weight classes, all of which are from 145 pounds and below.
Others to graduate included Robert Compton (127 wins), Austin Miller (83), along with Jacob Evans and Aaron Thompson.
“I lost seven seniors and all of them were four-year wrestlers. It is kind a rebuilding year for us. Grundy reloads, I rebuild, sometimes I feel like it should be retreat,” said Woodward, with a smile. “Eight of the weight classes have experience and six of them are first year wrestlers which is the most first year wrestlers I have put on the mat in 8 to 10 years.
“I usually only have just two or three weight classes where they are brand new, this year it is almost half.”
That doesn’t mean Graham doesn’t have some talent back on the mats. Kyshon Lee won 44 matches last season to lead all the returnees, while Levi Stroupe had 40 wins at 182, including a fourth place finish in Region C.
The other returnees include Colin Beavers (285 pounds, 21 wins last season), Jon Jennings (220, 21), Dylan Cook (195, 20), Hunter Cook (160, 26), Dacota Byrd (152, 21) and Tristan Evans (138, 22).
“I have got some very, very good wrestlers returning,” Woodward said. “All the guys from 152 up are experienced wrestlers, there are several MED champions, district champs in there from last year, kids that placed at Region C.
“It is a good group from 152 up. From 113 to 145 is all new guys, we will find out what they can do.”
Those veteran returnees will be expected to lead the youngsters as the G-Men compete in matches from began early this month and continue into February, including the Bobby Bates Tournament this weekend in Wise, Va., the always-popular Agie Skeens Invitational in Grundy and the G-Men’s own Graham Invitational on Jan. 25.
“They have to lead, they have to be role models,” Woodward said. “They have to lead through example, they have to peer-instruct with these younger kids, help them develop their wrestling technique and develop as a student-athlete.”
All are first-year wrestlers, including sophomores Gabe Collins (106) and Chandler Asbury (120), along with freshmen Sam Steele (113), Austin Byrd (126), Cliff McClanahan (132) and Austin Holbrook (145).
“From top to bottom is a great bunch of kids that do well in school, they work hard, they don't miss practice, and they want to do extra to get better,” Woodward said. “These kids in the lower weight classes are going to have to step up and mature quickly because they are going to get their matches and they are going to have to become competitive very quickly.”
The remainder of the squad, all of whom could work their way into the rotation, include seniors Zach Toohey (138), Ethan Scott (170), Ethan Stirewalt (220) and Daelan Caffee (285), junior Ahmad Wilson (285), sophomore Adrian Gray (220) and freshmen Alex Hicks (160) and Jacob Lester (285).
“Our goal for this year is to keep all the weight classes filled, keep everybody healthy, escape the injury bug, escape the typical winter bronchitis and flu and to be wrestling our best for the subsection and regional,” said Woodward, who has been assisted by Ben Fritz for eight years.
It was never exactly easy to advance to state matches, but it has definitely gotten more difficult with the revamped playoff system in all sports as established by the Virginia High School League.
Eight wrestlers in each weight class from both the West and East regions will advance to Salem. That is cut from 16 prior to this year.
“It does make it tougher, you have cut the field of qualifiers in half,” said Woodward, who has 342 wins in 28 years at Graham. “They have done that because in the old system there were two divisions in each level.
“There are now 24 schools in the Western region, 19 of them have wrestling. There are 26 teams in the Eastern region 2A, and 24 of those have wrestling. That is instead of the 110 there used to be when single A was all together.”
Getting as many kids qualified and bussed to Salem is the goal ahead for the G-Men.
“In 1992 I took 10 kids,” Woodward said. “Most of the time it has been 1, 2, 3 or maybe 4, but you have to earn your way there. There is no easy trip and sometimes some of these kids that get in have really, really worked hard and gotten some breaks.
“I would love to take all 14 of them up there, but we are going to try and get as many as we can.”
—Contact Brian Woodson