HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Capital's James Walton left the gridiron at the top of his game, the winner of this year's Hunt Award, and Thursday began his final push to leave the wrestling mat at his peak.Walton captured the touted football honor as the state's top interior lineman and returned to the mat for his senior season, a place he hadn't competed since wrestling at Stonewall Jackson Middle School. On Thursday, Walton wrestled in the opening round of the 67th West Virginia High School Wrestling Championships at Big Sandy Superstore Arena."I think it's because there was a bit of sadness from the end of the football season," Walton said of his decision to return to wrestling. "We didn't really get what we expected. I wasn't really ready to be done with being a Capital Cougar."The football team's loss in the AAA semifinals propelled Walton to look for another way to finish on top, and his addition was much welcomed to the Cougars wrestling program, coach Mike Wheeling said.
"All the coaches know him from PeeWee wrestling and JV wrestling," Wheeling said.Walton started the wrestling season at 6-foot-1 and 247 pounds. Football provided a great base for Walton, as well as his wrestling knowledge from his earlier career in grappling."Working with the football team and really lifting weights over there really got him to where he is now," Wheeling said. "He stepped on the scale today at 228. He's really coming down. He started wrestling at 247. He's really worked hard to get in condition."The wrestling vernacular escaped Walton as he got back to the mat, though the success did not."There was a little bit of rust at first," Walton said. "I didn't really remember all the names of the moves, but once I saw them, I would remember them and what to do, but not the names."Walton (31-3) put his knowledge and physical skills to work through the season to finish runner-up in the Third Region. On Thursday, he opened the state tournament in the heavyweight class with a match against Travis Penwell of Washington."I'm actually very proud of myself, to be honest," Walton said. "I really didn't think this season would have gone the way it did. I kind of thought I would take more lumps and losses than I have, so I feel proud to accomplish what I have accomplished so far."With a Thursday win, Walton would face former wrestling rival Nigale Cabell, the 4th Region champion from Huntington. Walton edged Cabell for the Hunt Award in football, but faces a greater challenge on the mat."We kind of had a rivalry in wrestling back in middle school, so we knew each other from that," he said, "and we both were some of the good defensive lineman this year in high school. We got to know each other over the season. We talk back and forth sometimes, but what happens on the mat, happens on the mat."No matter the outcome this weekend, Walton said he's happy to compete for Capital and finish his high school athletic career on a high note."I was really just doing this out of fun and I had some early success and it made me want to keep having that success," he said. "This is my last high school competition. It's hit me this week. It feels kind of strange, kind of a bittersweet, because I'm ready to go off to college, but I'm still going to miss the high school sports atmosphere and everything."
Wheeling said he expects Walton to do more than just make a name as a tournament participant, but finish among the state's best, just as in football."He'll do well," Wheeling said. "We're expecting him to medal. We'll take any medal we can get."He's the type of athlete that if everything falls his way, he could capitalize. He's a smart kid. If everything falls, he could do it."Quarterfinals and consolations rounds begin at 11:30 a.m. today. Semifinals will begin at 7:30 p.m.