To this point in the season, grapplers at Westfield haven’t resembled a wrestling team so much as a nomadic rock band. The area’s best wrestling squad has participated in out-of-town meets every weekend since the season began on Nov. 30, traversing Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York on a quest to test their mettle against the toughest competition on the East Coast.
Yet the purpose behind such an ambitious scheduling strategy involves more than simply giving kids a glimpse of high-caliber opponents. All the long drives, hotel stays and Saturday morning matches have been preparation for something bigger: a state championship trophy that has long eluded the four-time Northern Region champions.
“In the past, we’ve done really well in the district and region and we’ve had success in the state, but we’ve had a few bumps in the road at [the state tournament],” Westfield head coach Chuck Hoskins said. “So what I wanted to do different this year was to participate in more advanced tournaments, bracket tournaments as opposed to dual-team tournaments. So we don’t get the number of matches that we’ve had in the past, but we get the exposure to every kid being in a tournament where if you win, you move on. If you lose, you drop down. And if you lose again, you’re out. That’s the way the district, region and the state [tournaments] are.”
The Bulldogs have dominated their local stomping grounds in recent years, having claimed four region championships in the past five years, along with eight Concorde District titles in the past nine years. This season, though, Westfield is more determined to grab a Virginia AAA trophy that has eluded it since the school’s foundation in 2000.
In addition to the experience gained from competing in similarly formatted bracket tournaments, Westfield is leaning on a solid core of seniors that are showing the rest of the team what it takes to reach the top. Beau Donahue, a two-time state champion wrestling in the 145-pound weight class, and Stephen Aiello, a state medalist each of the past three years who’s competing in the 160-pound class, have been vital contributors since their freshman years. Stephen’s brother, Frank, is a two-time region medalist carrying a 21-6 record in the 170-pound class so far in his senior season.
“We’re all experienced and we know what to do, and I think that helps out a lot because we’ve also got a lot of sophomores and juniors who maybe aren’t quite as experienced, especially with all the traveling that we do and all the big tournaments we go to,” Stephen Aiello said. “They might feel too much pressure sometimes or they might not know what to do in certain situations. I think our leadership has definitely helped us give the team a calm demeanor and helped us keep our composure in tough situations.”
The team’s laundry list of accomplished seniors continues with Derek Arnold, the defending region champion in the 138-pound class who currently holds a 32-6 record this season. Then there’s Tyler Morson, another defending state medalist who has stepped up to the 182-pound class this year. Junior Garrett Maged also has held his own with the leading group, boasting an impressive 24-3 mark in his first year attending Westfield.
The Bulldogs followed their initial slate of two-day travel tournaments with their first dual match of the season Jan. 9 against Centreville and longtime rival Robinson, which finished second to Colonial Forge in the team competition at states last year. They easily dispatched Centreville, 51-15, before taking down the Rams, 34-29, to assert themselves as the team to beat this year as the season comes down its final stretch. The victory lifted Westfield’s dual record to 74-7 over the past four seasons.
“Robinson’s our huge rival; they always have been,” said Arnold, who defeated defending state champion Dallas Smith in the 138-pound match. “So it’s always fun going out there and being able to beat them, especially for us senior year. We matched up really well against them and we were able to put out our best guys, and we pulled it off.”
Still, Westfield’s performance in the six early-season tournaments might be better indicators for how they’ll fare in the two-day state tournament next month. The Bulldogs finished in the Top Five in five of those six competitions, including first place finishes in the 31-team Glenn Jones Charger Classic and the 24-team Patriot Invitational. They also finished in third place at the Eastern States Classic in New York, where 116 of the best teams on the East Coast did battle.
There were some hard lessons to be learned along the way, though. At the Conestoga Valley Classic in Lancaster, Pa., Westfield wrestlers struggled to duplicate their success in the evening’s quarterfinal round when they got to the next morning’s semifinal round. That stumble reinforced the importance of keeping their minds and bodies fresh during an overnight turnaround on the road.
“We had a great quarterfinal round. We just smoked it. But then we got to the semis and fell on our face,” Hoskins said. “Three of the matches were winnable matches, and we did not win those close matches. So it helped us learn a lot about how to prepare for those type of matches.”
The Bulldogs are currently gearing up for the Concorde tournament, which is set to take place at Westfield next Friday and Saturday. If they stay tough during that meet and perform well at the regional competition at Hayfield the following week, Westfield wrestlers might have the confidence necessary to get past the likes of Colonial Forge and Great Bridge at the state tournament in Virginia Beach Feb. 15 and 16. A victory there would bring closure to a group of seniors that learned the ropes on the mat room of the SYA Matdogs.
“We grew up wrestling together, so us being seniors it’s kind of our last shot together,” Donahue said. “The state championship has been our goal all year, and I don’t think we’ll be satisfied if we have anything less.”