'Now we're in it to win it'
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- George Washington's wrestling program looks to continue climbing the ladder of respectability at the WSAZ Invitational this weekend.
The two-day WSAZ meet, considered one of the most prestigious regular-season events in the state, gets underway at 2 p.m. today at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena in Huntington, with 37 schools represented. Weigh-ins are set for noon and the scratch meeting at 1 p.m.
Several power teams are coming to town for the tournament, including four ranked in AAA - No. 1 Huntington (the defending state champion), No. 2 Parkersburg South, No. 7 GW and co-No. 10 Cabell Midland.
In addition, five ranked AA-A programs are set to hit the mats at Big Sandy Arena in No. 1 Independence, No. 2 Greenbrier West, No. 4 Roane County, No. 5 North Marion and No. 9 Herbert Hoover.
Unlike some major tournaments, the WSAZs drop both AAA and AA-A wrestlers into the same brackets, giving the event its own distinct flavor as top performers see some potentially different matchups across the board.
GW, with eight athletes ranked in the top 10 of their respective weight classes by the West Virginia Wrestling Coaches Association, jumped a spot to seventh in the WVCA AAA poll this week.
It's a sign of respect for coach Richard Harper's club, which owns a pair of top-10 finishes in the five previous state tournaments, including a high of eighth place in 2009.
The Patriots finished fourth in last weekend's Winner's Choice, a large and highly regarded tournament in Fairmont that had more than half of the state's ranked teams in its field (six AAA, five AA-A).
Perhaps in years past, a fourth-place showing in a stacked field would have been good enough for GW. But not any more, Harper said.
"To be honest,'' he said, "now we figure we're going in it to win it. That's the attitude you've got to have, and the attitude we're trying to create with the kids. It's not just competing. It's the attitude of going in to win it.
"I think that's where we still struggle at times, getting the kids to understand that and getting over the hump. Instead of being glad to be there, we expect to be there [at the top]. I think we're getting closer every time, and that's a good attitude. It shows the kids believe in what we're doing.''
It's certainly not easy for a Kanawha Valley school, or any school from southern West Virginia, in fact, to make inroads at the state level.
When Huntington captured the AAA crown last year, it marked the first time since 1964 that a southern team won the AAA or overall title. In AA-A, Greenbrier West's championship last winter was the first for a southern team in 17 seasons.
No team from Kanawha or Putnam county has ever taken a team title in wrestling, a notion that seemed extremely far-fetched even 10 years ago, but since has grown legs as area programs, like GW's, improve.
"Since we've taken over,'' Harper said of his current coaching staff, "I think we've been improving every year, getting to where we're consistent - competing with the best teams in the state on a consistent basis. That comes with building a program.
"As far as being where we want to be? We're never satisfied till we win - and that's a state title. We're not content to stay where we're at. We want to show improvement every year.''
GW will be represented in all but two of the 14 weight classes this weekend, with seven wrestlers seeded somewhere in the top 10.
The Patriots' top hopes for individual honors rest with Jensen Lorea (33-1) at 138 pounds - the only GW athlete to get a No. 1 seed - along with second-seeded Philip Sharp (33-2) at 106, No. 3 seed David Smith (32-1) at heavyweight and fourth seed Hunter Jones (32-4) at 170.
Four other Kanawha Valley wrestlers secured high seeds for the WSAZs - Bryce Humphreys of Winfield, a defending state champ (first at 132), Zane Weese of Hoover (first at 220), Chase Stover of Hoover (third at 106) and Michael Milam of St. Albans (fourth at 145).
Herbert Hoover, like George Washington, moved up a notch in the state ratings this week, going from 10th to ninth after its own fourth-place finish at a large tournament, this one the 17-team Braxton Invitational, comprised entirely of Class AA teams, including four ranked squads.
"It was about what I expected,'' said fourth-year coach Heath Perry. "I think we only lost one, two matches I felt like we should have won. I was really pleased with it.''
The Huskies can take another step forward with a solid showing at the WSAZs, where they will wrestle in every weight class except heavyweight.
However, Perry admits he's going into the event somewhat blind owing to the presence of all the AAA teams he rarely sees during the season.
"To tell you the truth,'' he said, "I know very little about those triple-A teams. Since we're double-A, I don't pay attention to them and I don't know how we'll stack up.
"It's a little bit of a crapshoot for me. We've seen some of the triple-As around us like Hurricane and Winfield, but Parkersburg South and some of those others we haven't seen. Sometimes a double-A kid will get [starry-eyed] in that situation, but we've told them to go out and wrestle hard. It doesn't matter what the name on the front of the shirt is.''
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
COMPETING TEAMS (37)
Boyd County (Ky.), Brooke, Cabell Midland, Fairland (Ohio), George Washington, Greenbrier West, Herbert Hoover, Huntington, Hurricane, Independence, James Wood (Va.), John Marshall, Johnson Central (Ky.), Liberty Raleigh, Logan, Meade County (Ky.), Mingo Central, Montgomery County (Ky.), Nitro, North Marion, Oak Hill, Parkersburg South, Petersburg, Preston, Ravenswood, River Valley (Ohio), Riverside, Roane County, Robert C. Byrd, Spring Valley, St. Albans, University, Wahama, Williamstown, Winfield, Wirt County, Woodrow Wilson