A little extra motivation
NITRO, W.Va. -- It's a good thing Jake Smith isn't easily aggravated. Otherwise, he might have more motivation than he can handle this season.
Smith, who won a Class AAA state wrestling title last year at 145 pounds - the first for George Washington since Mark Samples in 1994 - wants to prove to everyone that he's not just a one-shot wonder, or that he's gotten satisfied with success.
Also, he'd like to convince Cleveland State, which signed him to a Division I national letter-of-intent, that it indeed made the right choice.
But there's one other item that could provide him with more incentive than the all the rest - the fact that he begins the 2013 portion of his senior season not ranked No. 1 in his weight class, a rarity for a reigning state champ.
Smith took a spotless 15-0 record into the Pat Vance Invitational, which began its two-day run Friday evening at Nitro High School, with GW as the three-time defending team champion. However, Smith's only listed No. 2 at 160 pounds in the initial West Virginia Coaches Association/wvmat.com Class AAA rankings that came out Thursday.
"It's just rankings,'' Smith said before competing on Friday. "I try not to get caught up in it. It's opinionated. What actually matters is February and what you do at the state meet. It's just coaches' opinions, so I guess I'll have to change opinions.''
Smith is ranked behind Wheeling Park's Danny Colby at 160. Colby finished as state runner-up at 152 last year.
Patriots coach Richard Harper thinks Smith might actually put the snub to good use.
"Some people's opinion is that the other kid is better than Jake,'' Harper said, "and some people think Jake is better than the next kid. But it all comes out in the wash. I know the fact he's No. 2 gives us a little more motivation.''
Smith certainly hasn't been bothered by injury or illness this season, which could alter some perceptions. Colby, however, has been limited by a knee injury that kept him out of the Wheeling Park Duals last weekend, a meet in which GW participated. Both Harper and Smith were looking forward to seeing Colby wrestle.
"Lots of things can happen between now and the state tournament,'' Harper said. "I know [Washington's Dylan Cerevalo] is in the mix of things at 160, and [Parkersburg South's Briar Shiveley] is real good. And there are other kids, too, but some of them can still change weight classes. Some of them might go up before the state tournament.''
Harper said Smith, as a defending state champ, has handled being the target of other wrestlers pretty well this season.
"Actually, I don't think it bothers him,'' Harper said. "He's been around [success] all his life. He was second at the state meet [at 135] as a sophomore and third [at 112] as a freshman. What he's looking at is getting ready for college, doing what he needs to stay in good shape so he can go to Cleveland State and start all over.''
Smith has taken that "starting all over'' mantra to heart even this year.
"Really, it doesn't matter if you were at the top before,'' Smith said. "You go into the next year and everything has a fresh start, everyone's working hard. Going back to back [as a state champion] is hard to do. It doesn't matter if you've won it before. It's all about competition.''
Smith has had success throughout his career at George Washington, posting records of 48-5 last year, 37-11 as a sophomore and 46-5 as a freshman, making him 146-21 before this weekend's Pat Vance Invitational.
But it's never too late for him to learn a new trick or two. Harper said Smith is probably enjoying wrestling a little bit more as a senior.
"I think so,'' Harper said. "He's having a good time with the kids, enjoying his role as a leader on the team. I'm seeing a side of him I haven't seen in the past. He was always intense and dead serious about everything, but now he's gotten a role of joking and having a good time [with teammates], and it's working out pretty good for him.''
There's still almost two months before the state tournament takes place Feb. 21-23 at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena in Huntington, but Smith certainly can't wait to prove to others that he hasn't lost a step since last year.
"It motivates you,'' he said. "It definitely makes you work harder, and I think it'll help me out in the long run.''
GW, as the three-time defending titlist at the Vance meet, was expected to get a battle from Winfield for the team crown. First-day results were unavailable at press time because the tournament started about an hour late and ran long.
The Generals began the weekend ranked 10th in Class AAA in the wvmat.com coaches poll, and they fielded a full squad for the Vance Invitational, while the Patriots were missing entries at 145, 152 and 182.
"It's that time of year,'' Harper said. "You see a lot of kids sitting out hurt, ACTs are coming up, everything. We've won here at Nitro three years in a row, but Winfield's looking good and has got a full squad. They've been pretty successful this year.
"Our thing is that we want to be hitting on all cylinders come the end of February. That's when it counts. If you happen to get some firsts and seconds along the line, that's great, too. A lot of people think we're not ready for the top 10 right now, either. We'll see how that finishes.''
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.