By BOB REDD
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Wrestling programs began in Mercer County schools five years ago. In that short time the Bluefield High School Beavers have had quite a few wrestlers advance to the state tournament in Huntington. This year the Beavers and coach Ryan Rooney expect to continue writing in the sports history books as Bluefield grapplers continue their success on the mats.
“We brought back a lot of guys, a lot of returning starters,” Rooney said. “We have a lot of seniors in the starting lineup and just as a point to show how much our team is improving, one of our state qualifiers from last year isn’t even our starter in his former weight class. We’re making progress right here.”
Rooney is in his second season as Beavers’ coach. Bobby Jenks led the program its first three years, while also serving as the school’s band director.
Looking at the Beavers on the mat there are a trio of young men, all seniors, who will led the program this season. All three of them went 5-0 in last weekend’s Beaver Invitational and they and Rooney believe qualifying for the state tournament is within their reach.
Leading the way is Brandon Eldridge. Already committed to wrestle on the collegiate level at St. Andrew’s in North Carolina, Eldridge made it to state last season and is highly ranked going into this season.
“As of right now, in the preseason rankings, he is No. 1, which is a first for Bluefield in its five year history,” Rooney said. “He deserves it. He has been working hard in the off-season, even during soccer season he was wrestling. There’s a lot that goes with being No. 1 too, a target on your back, everybody knows you.”
Competing in the 160 pound class, Eldridge, the goal keeper for the Bluefield High soccer team, is looking forward to his senior year on the mats.
“Everything is starting to all tie together,” Eldridge said. “Every year I get bette and better and now I think I’m finally starting to peak and get as good as I want to be as far as my strength and conditioning, skills, practice ethics, stuff like that.”
Eldridge, who has a career record of 104-14 iis also a team leader.
“As a junior last year he was a captain,” Rooney said. “He got his feet wet. He started to understand what it meant to be a captain and it’s not just going on the mat and yelling at everybody. He does everything with his actions. He understands his actions speak louder than words. He goes out there and he works hard. He wrestles hard. The guys see that and they respect that and they want to emulate him.”
Eldridge said the hard work is necessary to be a wrestler, but there is also an inner force that drives him on the mats.
“You’ve just got to want to win,” Eldridge said. “You’ve got to have a will to win and Coach Rooney keeps me in check of where my priorities are. If I want to win I’ve got to practice and work hard. It doesn’t just come out of nowhere.”
As for his next stop, St. Andrew’s, Eldridge said his coach is a tremendous help in preparing him for his wrestling future.
“(Coach) Rooney wrestled Division I for West Virginia, so he knows what I’m going to be heading into and he knows what I’m going to be going up against,” Eldridge said. “He has already been where I’m about to go, so he’s preparing me pretty good for it.”
Julius Thomas is another senior leader for the Bluefield program.
“Julius is a vocal leader,” Rooney said. “If people are talking he will get on you. He wants the team to be better than it is. He wants the team to get better every day and you can see it in the practice room because there is no nonsense. He’s got his head on straight and he knows what he wants from the team. It’s his senior year and he’s really working hard for it.”
Also a member of the Beavers football team, an offensive lineman, Thomas will compete at the 220 pound weight class. He qualified for the state tournament last year and looks to return.
“I’m enjoying it a lot this year,” Thomas said. “Last year I went upstate. I didn’t place, but since then he (Rooney) has been teaching me a lot of moves and I feel like I’m going to place top five or better.”
Wrestling is fairly new in Mercer County and it was only a few years ago that Thomas was introduced to the sport and since then has enjoyed it.
“My brother, Joseph, he has Down’s Syndrome, wanted to wrestle his 10th grade year, and my freshman year I went on a wrestling trip with them to Nicholas County,” Thomas said. “Coach Jenks said , ‘Maybe you should try wrestling.’ I thought about it and I came to one of the practices and it looked pretty fun and ever since then I have been wrestling.”
Shawn Pennington, like Thomas, was a member of the Beavers football team, and also like Thomas, was introduced to the sport by his brother.
“I came out my sophomore year and my brother (Cliff) wrestled too, he got me involved,” Pennington said.
Wrestling in the 195 weight class, Pennington talked about the sport.
“Wrestling is a more physical sport (than football), it’s more individual,” Pennington said. “It’s good to have a team built around you, but still it’s more individual and you’ve got to push yourself and push yourself to work harder and get better.”
To Pennington the wrestling team is like kin.
“A few of the guys I have spent my whole life with. A few of them played football with me and I have a background with them. Now we’re just a big family.”
Looking to attend WVU and major in engineering, Pennington also has goals on the mats.
“I’d like to make it back to regionals and hopefully get to state,” Pennington said. “I think we have a good team that could get a bunch of people up in the states this year and it will be worth seeing it.”
The Beavers have two weight classes at which they currently won’t compete this season, 132 and 138, but they look to be competitive with the following wrestlers: Scott Jansen (120), Tyler Brooks (126), Christian Oster (145), Bryan Morris (152), Corey Bird (170), Danny Miller (182) and Cody Gore (heavyweight).