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West Virginia Mat Lines

by Jenny Sullivan
Here's the line for March 13, 2008:

Every year there are several teams who come to the state wrestling tournament with hopes of overcoming the Goliaths of West Virginia wrestling, but once again the depth and talent of two of the state’s top wrestling programs of all time – Parkersburg and Oak Glen – paid off in the end, as the two perennial powers repeated as team champions in the AAA and AA/A divisions, respectively.

For more details on the actual championship finals, check out the AAA wrap-up and the AA/A wrap-up.

I had told several people that I was planning to really enjoy this tournament, and I thoroughly did. For those of you who may not know it, I’m the statistician for the Parkersburg South wrestling team. Since South didn’t have a realistic chance of winning the AAA state title, I didn’t have to spend the days leading up to the tournament fretting about what pill needed to be drawn, what matches were critical for our team, or what teams needed to “help us out” by beating our closest opponents.

Instead, I was free to focus on accomplishments of wrestlers and teams from both divisions while catching up with all of my wrestling friends from around the state. Rose Jackson, wife of South Coach Paul Jackson, was sitting with my sister Melissa Burton and friend Joni Hess and told them I was in my element, and I surely was. As I mentioned in the last article, it’s one of my favorite times of the year. The state tournament is like a big family reunion for me, and I get tidbits for my stories just by chatting with wrestlers, parents, coaches, officials, and fans in general.

For instance, I was talking to St. Albans Coach Joey Warner, asking him when the last time was that the Red Dragons had an individual state champion. The year was 1974, two years before Joey was even born! (And for the record, Warner was five years old the last time St. Albans had a wrestler in the championship finals.) Warner’s wrestler, Josh Bruce, finished as this year’s AAA heavyweight runner-up, but was part of a recent wave of success for the Kanawha Valley Schools.

It’s good to see the wrestling programs of the Kanawha Valley schools doing well. In addition to St. Albans, Riverside was represented in the championship finals for the first time in school history, as Alex Buckley (130) and Andrew Pearson (152) each placed second for the Warriors. Riverside wrestling has come on strong over the past couple of years. Last year they placed 6th as a team and had four wrestlers place in the tournament. 130-pound runner-up Alex Buckley is just a sophomore, and has hopes of becoming Riverside’s first individual state champion. Last year was the highest state tournament finish ever for Herbert Hoover.

And that brings us to Poca High School. Having been around the sport for over 30 years now, up until just recently whenever I thought of Poca wrestling I thought of Mel Reed. Reed wrestled for Poca back in the day when the class was Unlimited, not merely heavyweight. The biggest non-sumo wrestler I’d ever seen (I’d always heard he weighed 400 pounds, but I’ll gladly accept correction on that statistic), he was every bit the intimidating opponent. He didn’t always win, but needless to say, if he got on top and got his opponent in a pinning combination, it was all over. He only lost two matches his senior year, the second being in the 1981 state championship finals. Now fast forward to 2008, where the Dots’ Cody Hilty became the first Poca wrestler to qualify for the state tournament since Reed graduated. Hilty’s participation in the state tournament wouldn’t have even been possible had it not been for Coach Rex Nelson, former coach at Webster County. After he transferred to Poca, Nelson was approached by another Cody – Cody French – about starting the wrestling program back up. That was four years ago, and Nelson hopes to build on Hilty’s success and put Poca back on the wrestling map.

The Kanawha Valley as well as the entire state will certainly miss the presence of the Easter brothers, who have dominated the mat action since oldest brother Matt stepped on the mat as a freshman eight years ago. Undoubtedly West Virginia’s most successful wrestling family, Matt, middle brother Anthony, and youngest brother Seth have a combined career record of 524-10, an absolutely mind-boggling statistic.

The Easter brothers can surely attribute their success to talent, lots of hard work, and the support of their parents, Chuck and Bev Easter. But it wasn’t until this year that I found out Seth had a lucky charm. I was sitting talking to Wirt County Coach Kenny Dye during one of Seth’s matches. Just then Kenny pointed out “the shoes”. Seth was wearing a very tattered pair of black wrestling shoes that had surely seen better days. I found out from Bev later that they are indeed the lucky shoes, and that she always kept a spare pair matside just in case of a shoe “blowout”.

Another lucky charm of sorts is Parkersburg Head Coach Scheny Schenerlein’s towel that he drapes (and re-drapes depending on the tension of the match at hand) over his shoulder during matches. The towel actually serves a purpose, as it’s literally splattered with blood, sweat, and tears by the time it’s passed on to a chosen wrestler each year. This year’s recipient was Zach Nolan. As Nolan proudly stood atop the podium as the 2008 AAA heavyweight state champion, Scheny walked up and bestowed the honor upon him. At the conclusion of the tournament, I was congratulating Nolan on his title and asking him about his special award. He proudly showed me the towel, which to any other person would just be a dirty old wrestling towel. But to a Big Red wrestler, it’s a memento to be treasured for a lifetime.

Unfortunately, Lady Luck isn’t always smiling down on everyone at the state tournament, and there are always a handful of wrestlers who have to bow out early, usually due to injuries. The AAA 152 quarterfinals were exceptionally brutal, as three wrestlers defaulted one right after the other. Luckily, Ripley’s Richie Stutler was able to wrestle one more match, but the season came to a screeching halt for Greenbrier East’s Charles Eary and Hedgesville’s Billy Forquer. Forquer came into the tournament as a heavy favorite to reach the finals with his Region 2 runner-up Eric Morris of East Fairmont (who eventually captured the title). Fortunately, he’s just a junior and will have one more shot at the title next year. Here’s hoping 2009 is an injury-free year for Billy!

It’s always disappointing to lose a match at the state tournament, but it can be potentially devastating if you’re one of the state’s top-ranked wrestlers and you lose in the early rounds. Two wrestlers in particular showed their mettle by wrestling back after tough losses to take third.

Greenbrier West’s Randy Ferrill, a four-time regional champion who came into the tournament as the state’s #2-ranked AA/A 125-pounder, lost a heartbreaking first-round match to Roane County’s Justin Fisher. But he wrestled back like a true champion to place third, allowing him to take a spot on the podium for the fourth straight year.

Herbert Hoover’s Cody Moore came into the tournament as the top AA/A 140-pounder in the state, but saw his hopes for a state title dashed when he lost his Friday morning quarterfinal match to eventual state champion Danny Palmateer. But Moore bounced back and finished third. While this is impressive in and of itself, the fact that Moore had to accomplish the feat two years in a row is an amazing testament to his character. Last year Moore was also the top-ranked wrestler in the state, but lost in the first round only to come back and storm through the consolation bracket to place third.

While Ferrill was the only wrestler to finish third after losing his first-round match, eight other wrestlers joined Moore as third place finishers who had to fight their way back after quarterfinal losses. In AAA, Ripley’s Luke Parsons, Wheeling Park’s Bryce Rush, University’s Victor Panico, East Fairmont’s Morgan Murphy, and Huntington’s J. B. Lageman each finished third and were joined by AA/A wrestlers Troy Eckleberry of Oak Glen, Kenneth Holland of Greenbrier West, and Derrick Rovira of Weir. While the state champions may get their names in the record books, these young men all have a top spot in many a fan’s mind, because their grit and determination is the epitome of what the sport of wrestling is all about.

Rovira’s third-place finish was a pleasant surprise to the Weir wrestling community. He hadn’t stepped on the mat since he was nine years old, but came out for wrestling to improve his football conditioning. However, the Red Rider junior reaped even more benefits than expected when he finished as the AA/A Region 1 runner-up and placed third at the state tournament.

Weir is just one of several northern panhandle schools to enjoy a resurgence of enthusiasm for the sport. Now mind you, none of the teams are in a position to pose a threat to Oak Glen anytime soon, but thanks to the efforts of dedicated coaches and parents, schools like Weir, Madonna, Wheeling Central, and Bishop Donahue are seeing increased participation. And that’s always great for the sport!

It’s nice to see teams finish the season with gratifying results. Not every team is on the same level as champions Oak Glen and Parkersburg, but to other schools that aren’t as steeped in wrestling tradition, the following accomplishments are very worthy of mentioning.

For instance, Keyser has finished 20th and 17th, respectively, the past two years. The last time a team from Keyser cracked the top 20 was in 1991. Four teams enjoyed their highest state tournament finishes in school history, including Greenbrier East and Spring Valley in AAA, and Liberty Raleigh and Roane County in AA/A. University (AAA) tied their school-best with a sixth-place finish. Berkeley Springs (AA/A) enjoyed their highest team finish in ten years.

Although they had a disappointing state tournament, the wrestlers of Oak Hill can be proud of how far their program has come. Coaches Joel Harris and Alan Fell took over the program nine years ago, and in 2006 finally saw the fruits of their labor as they qualified a record 10 wrestlers for the state tournament and placed a record 4 wrestlers. Last year Coach Fell received even more gratification as his son Ryan became the first state champion from Oak Hill. This year the team won both the Coalfield Conference and the AA/A Region 3 tournament. Fell and Harris started feeder programs at both the youth and junior high level, and they are now reaping the rewards. My hat’s off to these fine gentlemen and their dedication to the sport.

Another fine gentlemen and one of my favorite coaches is Coach Rod Auvil of Grafton. I’ve been friends with Auvil and his family for several years now, and they’re wonderful people. Coach Auvil took over the program at Grafton in 1990, and in just four short years turned them into a perennial contender. They finished 10th in 1993, and in the past fifteen years have landed in the top ten 11 times, with their highest finish ever coming last year when they finished fifth. This year was supposed to be a rebuilding year, as Auvil didn’t have any seniors on the team. However, they won the AA/A Region 2 tournament, crowned one state champion (Cameron Gallaher), and placed two additional wrestlers (Markus Griffin and Aaron Wood). With their entire contingent returning for the 2008-09 season, don’t be surprised if they better their 5th place showing from last year.

And I want to send a special greeting to another special coach, retired coach Garry Bender from Spencer/Roane County. Coach Bender is on a slow road to recovery after a serious illness this summer that resulted in a lengthy hospital stay. I’ve admired Coach Bender for a long time and enjoy talking with him when I get the chance. He always was and continues to be a class act. He and his son Matt demonstrated the kind of character they had back in 2002 when Matt was wrestling Parkersburg South’s Nathan Pickens in the AAA semifinals. Matt was out of commission momentarily during the match as a result of what could have been ruled an illegal slam by Pickens. Had Bender chosen not to get up, Pickens would have been disqualified, ending his chance at a state title (which he went on to win). Instead, Bender honorably got up and continued wrestling. Although he lost the match, he finished fifth that year. Coach Bender not only instilled good character in his son, but also in several of the young men who wrestled for him. Here’s wishing you well, Coach. I hope to see you at a match next year!

A big congratulations goes to Coach Bill Whittington of Hedgesville, who now has 26 years of coaching (which includes twice coming out of retirement), 375 dual victories, and now the National Federation of High School Coaches Association Mideast Coach of the Year award. We met each other a couple of years ago, and now we make it a point to stop and chat every time we see each other. I said it in person at the state tournament, but I’ll say it again. Congratulations Coach!

And congratulations to Dr. Bill Welker, who was named Wrestling USA Magazine’s “2008 Master of Wrestling”. Perhaps no one has contributed more to wrestling in our state than has Dr. Welker, and this honor is much deserved.

So we say goodbye to another wrestling season here in West Virginia. Some have already begun to look toward next year. If you’d like to see what’s in store for next year and perhaps read just a little more trivia, tune in next week for the final Mat Lines of the 2007-08 season.
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