The sweat that was sweat, blood that was shed, tears that were cried and dreams that were dreamt in Herndon High School's mat-room yielded several individual state championship titles — seven to be exact. Chris Sabo accounts for two of those gold medals and also for what proved to be one of the most important ones — the first wrestling title in Herndon's history.
"To be the first for my father was more of the dream," said Sabo, who now — at 32 years old — owns and operates a restaurant in St. Augustine, Fla. "To be the first state champ he coached was pretty special."
Sabo's father Steve left a successful coaching career behind in New York just before Chris's freshman year at Herndon to help the 14-year-old find different competition.
"He had had it with competing against the same kids all the time," said Steve, who had coached his son since the age of five. Chris and his father teamed up with Karl Spinnenwebber, who at the time was an assistant at Oakton before jump-starting a Herndon dynasty that lasted longer than a decade. Herndon won 10 district titles, four region titles, and finished as high as third in the state in Spinnenwebber's 14 years as coach.
"I didn't even have a job at Herndon," remembered Spinnenwebber, who now lives in Centreville. "[Chris's] dad called looking around to coach. He called and said 'Did I mention my son wrestled in eighth grade in New York and won 27 matches on the varsity?'"
Sabo, who was allowed by New York's school system to wrestle against varsity competition, entered Herndon with valuable experience that led him to become the school's second all-time winner (131 career wins).
SABO WENT ON to win the Virginia High School League AAA state title as a sophomore and posted a 131-7 career record including a senior season in which he went undefeated (34-0) en route to his second state title. He also won the regional title three times and was a high school All-American. Sabo, who found success early as a sophomore in 1991, became one of the state's most targeted wrestlers.
"There was more pressure on him. It seemed like it made it harder," said Spinnenwebber. "His junior year, in a couple times in the matches you could see the pressure got to him a little bit. Once he lost in the state finals, a lot of that pressure [was gone]...he was no longer a big gun."
In the state final of his junior year, Sabo — who only lost one regular season dual meet match in his entire career at Herndon — lost to Great Bridge's Mark Strickland.
"People gunning for you for sure," said Sabo of his junior year. "I was told that [Strickland] had pictures of me up in his locker and all kinds of stuff."
Sabo still holds the memory of the state finals loss to Stickland as his most vivid today. "I just know that there was a lot of build up to [the match]. Me coming back as a state champ and Mark being an obvious talent from Great Bridge. It was a tough match for me. It was pretty nerve-racking coming into it. I didn't wrestle as well as I wanted to."
Sabo came back the next season more dedicated than ever to getting back to the biggest stage in the state.
"In the room I was not so much worried about Chris and his abilities," said Steve Sabo. "We would go through our regimen of technique and moves and conditioning and it stayed there in the room. Chris had to do things around the house to maintain his endurance level. He had a stationary bike to keep his conditioning and keep his weight under control."
CHRIS WENT ON to wrestle at Oklahoma State University for a year and qualified for the NCAA tournament. Sabo now owns and operates a restaurant in St. Augustine, Fla., where he lives with his wife Megan — brother of Jeremiah Wells, who is the winningest wrestler in the history of Alabama (5-time state champion). His father Steve lives in Georgia where he has started a wrestling club — The Glynn Coastal Wrestling Club (Brunswick, Ga.). "Chris was a junk-master," said Phil Cronin, Chantilly's wrestling coach that also coached Sabo on the Cadet Junior National Freestyle and Greco-Roman team. Cronin complimented Sabo's arsenal of moves.
"He had more junk wrestling."
Sabo was the first of several state champions to flow through Herndon and help create an era of dominance that Cronin admired. "Herndon ran the streets in the [90's] when they were just putting out studs."
Some of those other studs included:
v Matt Gallagher — 1999 — the only Herndon wrestler ever to place four times at the state tournament. From his freshman year on Gallagher placed third, second, fourth and won the state title at 145 in his senior year. Gallagher is third all-time at Herndon in career wins (126), first in career pins (68) and single-season pins (35), and third in career takedowns (206).
"By far the most talented and gifted wrestler we ever had," said Spinnenwebber. "He could use 100 percent of his skill."
v Erik Zakrzewski — 2003 — a three time regional champion and two time state champion (2002, 2003). Zakrzewski was a 171-pounder that "had determination and desire that far exceeded his technique and ability," said Spinnenwebber. "He was very long and used his leverage well and was incredibly smart." Zakrzewski holds Herndon's record for career wins (134) and is fourth all-time in career pins (52).
v Arash Alizadeh — 1992 — didn't start wrestling until his sophomore year in high school after moving to the United States from Iran. He won a state title as a senior in the 145-pound weight class. Alizadeh is fourth in single-season pins (27).
"I remember Arash coming into practice as a tenth grader wearing tennis shoes and shorts and beating him up for days and pinning him 100 times in a minute," said Chris Sabo. "His junior year, after wrestling camps, he was immediately one the of the toughest guys in the room."
v Andrew Abrams — 1998 — Abrams posted a career 120-17 record in high school and won the AAA state title as a senior at 130 pounds defeating the heavily-favored Bruce Fowler from Great Bridge. Abrams is second all-time in career takedowns (213).
"In order to be at that level, you have to be really self-motivated and Andrew was certainly one of those kids," said Steve Sabo.
Chris Sabo is 93 in a survey of the area's Top 100 Athletes by Connection Newspapers in 2000.