One of the yearly highlights of the early high school winter sports season is the annual Northern Virginia (NOVA) Wrestling Classic, the large showcase extravaganza that is hosted by Fairfax High School and includes most of the public schools from across the Northern Region as well as other public and private schools from the metropolitan area and further out.
The Classic has been one of the most successful and longest-running booster-sponsored events in the region. This year’s Classic, the unofficial starting point of the local prep school wrestling season, is believed to be in its 23rd straight year, although that fact is a little fuzzy to event coordinators.
“We were trying to do a countdown and we think this is the 23rd year,” said Tim Gordan, Fairfax High’s Director of Student Activities, in a recent e-mail regarding the event. “But our memories are fading!”
Whatever the Classic’s official year start-up, the tournament is a monitor for local coaches to get a sense of where their respective teams are at the early stages of the mat season.
“The NOVA Classic is a great opening tournament for the season,” said Scott Matheny, Lake Braddock Secondary School head coach. “It gives the guys a preview of what is in the region and some good competition from outside the region. It is a early season measuring stick for where you are and what you need to work on.”
The Classic will be held this Friday, Dec. 10 and Saturday, Dec. 11 at Fairfax High. The action will begin at 10 a.m. on both days.
Phil Cronin, the Chantilly High coach, said coaches have different outlooks regarding the early season Classic.
“Most coaches are split on the tourney,” said Cronin. “Some don’t like seeing region opponents this early, while others like to `test the waters’ as it were. I belong to the latter. Success at the Classic sets the tone for the season; it lets you know where kids will shake out and who looks tough. It motivates those who don’t do well and it gives confidence to those who did.”
Jack Clark, the Woodson High head wrestling coach, said the Classic is a great opportunity for his wrestlers, especially the younger team members, to get a `big meet’ experience - a preparatory for the bigger and more important tournaments later in the season.
“My expectation for the NOVA Classic is that it is a motivator for the guys - to get an idea of what they need to do to prepare for the end of year tournaments,” said Clark. “Time is short and I really believe in our guys. They are great kids, good listeners and willing to put themselves on the line and do the work that's necessary. I'm particularly proud of their team-first attitude.”
While succeeding and doing well at the Classic, both in the team standings and individually, are of importance for athletes and coaches, the big picture reality of the event suggests it is but the first step of a long, often grinding season.
“The NOVA Classic is a big early event, however it is so early in the season that it won't have a major effect on the team,” said Sean Anderson, the coach at South County Secondary School. “We all know it’s not how you start a season but how you finish it. With that being said we look forward to the challenge of a big tournament and look for some of our wrestlers to make a name for themselves.”
Thirty-one teams are expected to participate in this year’s Classic, including Lake Braddock, Woodson and South County Secondary. The other participating schools will be: Annandale, Fairfax, Paul VI, South County, West Springfield, Centreville, Chantilly, Westfield, Bishop Ireton of Alexandria, Bishop O’Connell of Arlington, Edison, Fauquier, George Mason (Falls Church city), Herndon, Jefferson, Madison, Marshall, McLean, Mountain View (Stafford), Oakton, Potomac Falls, South Lakes, St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School of Alexandria, Tallwood (Virginia Beach), T.C. Williams, Wakefield, Washington-Lee, and Yorktown.
Last year’s top five team finishers at the 2009 NOVA Classic were champion Westfield, second place Fairfax, third place Woodbridge, fourth place Annandale and fifth place Potomac Falls of the Dulles District.
Robinson Secondary won the team title in 2008 and Westfield took the crown in 2007. (Robinson is participating at another tournament this weekend in Annapolis).
The following is a brief look at some of the local wrestling teams as they go into this weekend’s Classic.
<b>Lake Braddock</b>: The Bruins’ strength this season will be in its middleweights with such wrestlers as Rory Renzi, who finished fifth in the state last year, Jake Sage and Cory Smith. The team is less experienced in both its light weights, where the Bruins will have four freshmen starters, and its heavyweights.
“Our wrestling team will be a mix of inexperienced young guys and some very strong returners,” said coach Matheny.
<b>W.T. Woodson:</b> A year ago, the Cavaliers, behind a stellar group of senior wrestlers, finished fourth in the postseason Northern Region championships. It was Woodson’s best finish at regionals in 16 years.
This season, different team members will have to emerge in order for Woodson to have a successful year.
“I do not consider this a rebuilding year, but I see this as an opportunity for guys on the team to step up and fill the role where last year's guys left off,” said coach Clark. “We're a work in progress at the moment, but are working hard to make progress this season. We have a good mix of returning seniors and some fresh faces that have the potential to be strong wrestlers.”
Returning seniors include Mitchell Kohlhaas (112 wright class), who finished in the top 12 at states last year, Randall Mailand, Michael Orrick, Daniel Albamonte, Mac Tunick, Ben Newman and Carson Brown.
Woodson Note: The Fairfax County School Board recently named the Woodson wrestling room after longtime legendary head coach Paul Labazzetta, who was at the helm of the Cavaliers from 1972 to 2004. Woodson plans to honor Labazzetta later on this season.
<b>South County:</b> Coach Anderson has been impressed with his team’s work ethic and determination right from the start of this young season. The Stallions were certainly impressive this past weekend at the Spotsylvania Duals competition at Spotsylvania High (Battlefield District) where they went 5-0 in team competition.
“The coaching staff is very encouraged with the start of the season,” said Anderson. “From the first day of practice the kids have been very motivated and have worked hard in the practice room. What I'm most pleased with is the way that they have bonded as a team; they truly care about each other and push each other in practice.”
South County’s top returning wrestler this winter is Tyler Howard, who finished third at the NOVA Classic in 2009. Other Stallion wrestlers that could have success this season include Brett Stein, Keegan Sullivan, Scott Blackstone, and Christian Merino. Two of the squad’s young lightweight wrestlers, Hunter Manley and Kabir Gill, could have big seasons as well.
<b>SOUTH LAKES</b>, under head coach Bruce Hall, has gotten off to a good start this season. The Seahawks won all three of their team matches at the Herndon Quads on Dec. 4 – victories over the host Hornets, 62-18, Washington-Lee, 48-34, and Langley, 54-28. Langley’s squad consisted of JV wrestlers as the Saxons’ varsity was competing in a meet at McDonogh High in Maryland.
“Their varsity is going to be tough,” said Hall, of Liberty District rival Langley. Of the host Hornets, Hall said, “The Herndon team is undermanned but the kids they have wrestled hard and did a good job.”
South Lakes, at the Herndon Quad, was without key wrestlers Jake Slover, the defending district champ at 171-weight class, and four year wrestler George Ramirez. Both were taking their SAT’s. Harris Hafizi, a four year starter at 145, was also not available.
“I had no idea what to expect,” said Hall, who used some younger wrestlers to fill in some of the holes in the line-up.
Several South Lakes wrestlers were a part of the Seahawks’ successful fall football team which reached the second round of the region playoffs. As a result, they were not on-hand to wrestle for the first couple weeks of the winter season practices.
“The problem with having a good football team that goes deep into the playoffs is that you don’t get those guys back at the start of the season,” said Hall. “We had several starters and a great wrestler [Belmin Rivera] get injured during football season.”
Rivera (215) is rehabbing a knee injury he suffered midway through the football season.
Other football players who got late wrestling starts included Chris Maginniss (140); two-time district champ Ryan Forrest; and district place-winner Justin Williams.
Williams wrestled at 145 at the Herndon Duals and went 3-0. Other Seahawks who won all three of their matches were Josh Forrest (135), Maginniss (140), Forrest (152), Owen Wolfe (215), and heavyweight Eduardo Molina.
“When Haris Hafizi and Jake Slover are added to the lineup, we’re going to be very tough in the middle of our lineup,” said Hall.
Forrest, who was third in the region last year, is South Lakes’ top returning wrestler.
“Ryan will probably wrestle Div. 1 in college,” said Hall. “If he wasn’t such a great all-around athlete, he’d be a better wrestler but he’s pretty good to begin with. He pinned three kids in the first and second periods [at Herndon] wrestling up [at 152].”
Magginniss, at 140, is a much improved wrestler from last year.
“He’s going to be a force soon,” said Hall.
Josh Forrest, Ryan’s younger brother, is wrestling at 135 for the Seahawks.
“Josh will place high in the district and hopefully place in the region and go to states as a freshman,” said Hall. “He is a tough, tough kid.”
The team’s 125-pounder is four-year starter Andrew Goldberg.
Other key members of the line-up are Kevin Argueta (103), who earned a varsity letter as a freshman last year; freshman Terry Petersen (112); Ian Spencer (119); Hafizi (152); and sophomore Michael Shoebottom (160), who earned 14 pin wins last year.
Slover, a team captain and the defending district champ at 171, should be in for another standout year. Kevin Canales or Owen Wolfe will wrestle at 189 for the Seahawks. Rivera, when he returns to health, will be at 215 and senior Eduardo Molina, perhaps the squad’s most improved wrestler, will be at heavyweight.
“Our goal this year is to win the district tournament pure and simple,” said Hall. “It’s not how we start, it’s how we finish. Our goal is also to have everyone academically eligible for the tournament season. That has become a major point of emphasis for our program. Whatever it takes, academics is the priority.
“I’m proud of these kids and my coaching staff,” said Hall. “We’ve put South Lakes on the map in wrestling in Northern Virginia. Hopefully, we can maintain that in the years to come. It’s a great high school and we’re very proud to be called Seahawks.”
<b>HERNDON COACH</b> Mike Gonzalez is looking forward to seeing how his team does at the NOVA Classic.
“I’m looking forward to seeing where our new guys stand in the region,” said Gonzalez. “I’m expecting three to four placers. I’m hoping our new guys win at least one to two matches. Last year, we surprised everyone when we placed ninth [at the Classic].”
But the coach said the 2009 Hornets may have peaked a little early.
“Looking back, we were going a little too hard in practice too early, and by the end of the year, we finished 28th in the region,” he said. “After having a top 10 finish in the NOVA, the end of our season was extremely disappointing. I think we peaked way too soon. This year, our conditioning and practices will be a little more gradual, and a couple active rest days inserted here and there to keep our guys fresh.”
Herndon has a large team roster this season, but not a whole lot of experience.
“We have a young wrestling program this year,” said Gonzalez. “I’m happy with the numbers we have in the room. However, we don’t have that many varsity-caliber wrestlers this year. In the past, I would have inserted JV guys in the line-up so we wouldn’t have any forfeits. However, I have learned from experience, that it is better to develop the young wrestlers rather than feeding them to the wolves. It keeps their confidence level up and gives them a chance to learn. I anticipated not having a full line-up this year, so I geared our schedule to more individual tournaments, rather than dual meets. That way our returners can get good competition, and the newbies won’t get worn down by the grind of a long season.”
Herndon hoisted its own four-team meet last week, the guest teams being Langley, South Lakes and Washington-Lee.
Herndon wrestlers to watch include: junior Gabe Pike (112-division), a two-time district place finisher; senior Ramon Reyes (119), who placed fourth in the district last year; and freshman Bassam Estwani (130).
Gonzales commented on the threesome.
“Gabe is looking for a ticket to the state tournament this year,” said the coach. “He will be competing for a district and region title. Ramon had trouble maintaining his weight last season so he is bumping up a weight class. He will be contending for a district title and a trip to the state tournament. Bassam, only a freshman, has a couple years of experience with the Herndon Rattler Youth Program. He will make some freshmen mistakes here and there, but he is tough, and a competitor, and by the end of the year, we hope to get him to the regional tournament.”
<b>Oakton</b>, under head coach Eric Gibbons, will follow up its upcoming weekend at the NOVA Classic by taking part in the Osbourn High Park Tournament on Saturday, Dec. 11 in Manassas. On Dec. 28, the Cougars will participate in a holiday tournament at Fauquier High School in Warrenton.
<b>Madison</b>, under coach Shawn Hutchinson, will be hosting its own Warhawks’ Holiday Classic Dec. 22-23. After Christmas, Madison will compete at the annual St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School Christmas Classic in Alexandria on Dec. 30.
<b>Marshall</b>, coached by Jason Planakis, will be at the Raider Classic, hosted by Stuart High School, on Dec. 18. Over the holidays, the Statesmen will compete at the Battle at the Bridge Tournament at Woodbridge High School on Dec. 29.
<b>Centreville</b>: The Wildcats, under head coach John Belyea, competed at the Ray Oliver Invitational at McDonough High in Maryland last weekend where they finished 16th place overall in the 21-team field. The team champion was Arch Bishop Spalding. Langley was the lone other Northern Region team other than Centreville to compete at the event. The Saxons finished 10th overall.
Key wrestlers to keep an eye on this season for Centreville include Ryan Sepulveda (160 weight class), Connor Mitchell (119) and David Chenevey (189).
Sepulveda was the Wildcats’ top finisher at the McDonough meet with a third place finish.
“We are very young this year,” said Belyea. “Only five returners from last year’s team have any varsity experience.”
The coach is interested to see how his squad will handle a big meet such as the NOVA Classic.
“The NOVA Classic will be a good test for us to see where we stand with some of the regions competition,” he said.
<b>Chantilly</b>: The Chargers opened up the season in a competition at Potomac Falls High School (Dulles District) on Dec. 4. There, Chantilly went 5-0 as a team, getting dual meet wins over Stonebridge, Broad Run, Woodson, Madison, and T.C. Williams.
One of the individual highlights of the day for the Chargers was senior Wes Litton’s overtime win over defending Northern Region champion Albert Schultz of Madison.
Several Chantilly team members who were part of the school’s football team this fall that made it to the region finals were not able to join the wrestling squad until recently because of the extended postseason football run.
“The good and bad of having a good football program is that anytime a kid can be in a championship situation, it makes them better,” said Cronin, the Chantilly wrestling coach. “However, I am just now getting many of my guys back. Many of them are not `on weight’ yet, either."
Chantilly wrestlers to watch this season include: senior Bernabe Mejia, who finished fifth in the region last year; Ben Cobb, a First Team All-Region football linebacker this fall; junior Sam Cronin, coach Phil’s son who finished sixth in the region last year; and Litton, a fourth-year starter.
<b>Westfield:</b> The Bulldogs, the defending NOVA Classic champion, are a younger squad this season, consisting of a starting line-up that currently includes three seniors, five juniors, five sophomores and one freshman.
“This is a young but talented team,” said Westfield head coach Chuck Hoskins.
Bulldog wrestlers to look out for include: Harry Van Trees, Jacob DeLeon, Beau Donahue, Derek Arnold, Brett Campbell and Dennon Carranza-Kee.
“The NOVA Classic will be a good test to show us where we are compared to others in the region,” said Hoskins. “We are working hard to keep the tradition going. With God's blessing we will stay healthy and get better every week.”