No matter what happens this weekend at the Northern Region wrestling championship at Hayfield, Patrick O’Connor’s legacy as one of the best athletes in the history of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is secure.
O’Connor was the catalyst for the Colonials’ football team overcoming a three-year record of 4-26 to go 6-5 and make the playoffs last fall. He’s a three-time Liberty District wrestling champion (winning at 189 lbs. as a sophomore and then repeating at 195 the last two seasons) and brings a 31-0 record (and more than 100 career wins) into regionals. On Wednesday, he signed his national letter of intent to play Division I football next year at Davidson College in North Carolina. And to top it all off, he has a self-deprecating sense of humor resulting in a “@princess_patsy” Twitter handle.
But fittingly for the son of a naval officer who attended four years of elementary school in Burke, moved to San Diego and then returned before eighth grade, his mission is not complete.
After winning the regional wrestling title last year, O’Connor went 1-2 at the state meet, so he’s pushing for a better showing this year, perhaps even a championship.
“It would be the perfect way to end high school,” he said. “There’d be nothing to look back at.”
O’Connor won the district title last weekend at McLean with a first-period pin of the host school’s Noah Cherry. He took control from the outset, shooting to Cherry’s left and driving him back to his right. With about 45 seconds to go in the three-minute period, Cherry almost forced a reset by going out of bounds, but O’Connor grabbed him by the hips and pulled him back into the circle. The match ended just before time expired in the first period.
“Once I brought him back in, he was stuck,” O’Connor said. “I just had to get him down so the ref could see it.”
Jefferson coach Clint Behling said the goal this year was to improve O’Connor’s tactics, something that will come in handy if he makes it to Chesapeake (Oscar Smith High School) for the state tournament.
“So we started saying ‘no more using this move, work on that move … You’re not allowed to pin the kid in the first period, so take him down, let him up,’” Behling said. “That really helped him grow a lot. This year we’re looking at chains. ‘If I do this, what is he going to do? And is that going to set something up?’”
And in an early-January match at Chantilly against Dominion High School that resulted in his 101st win, O’Connor did just that, working his opponent into all sorts of positions and controlling the bout until midway through the second period before ending it with a pin.
“It’s a lot more technical than people think. People think wrestling is all about throwing and out-muscling him,” he said. “You’ve got to get him a little off balance, make him a take a step so I can shoot. There’s a lot of little things you’ve got to do.”
While he chooses his words carefully, O’Connor has the type of confidence that inspires those around him – whether they’re his classmates in Oceanography (his senior research lab), the younger football players or his two little brothers (Ryan, a star lacrosse player bound for the University of North Carolina, is a 10th-grader at Paul VI in Fairfax, while Charlie is in fifth grade.) Even the Jefferson student section went out of its way to make a giant poster of Princess Peach from Super Mario Bros. fame and attach O’Connor’s photo in honor of his “princess” moniker. (Given by his mother, Lori, who thought her son was babying a strained muscle in his hip the summer before sophomore year. His father, Sean, said he had nothing to do with the nickname.)
“He’s one of those guys you want to work hard for,” said Jack Brown, a senior offensive lineman and key member of the “Monticello Maniacs,” the student cheering section. “He was one of the ones helping turn this program around.”
Lisa Wu, the Oceanography teacher, said O’Connor’s demeanor is well-suited for both the lab and the stadium.
“Challenges only serve to make him more determined,” she said via e-mail. “He doesn’t care about immediate perfection. It’s about learning something over time.”
And perhaps the most exciting day of 2013 for O’Connor was when he and his research partner Sarah Graham received 20 juvenile lobsters from the New England Aquarium so they could begin their project: monitoring the crustaceans’ heart-rates.
It’s that kind of character, along with gaudy 15-touchdown, 1,262-yard statistics as a senior, that has new Davidson coach Paul Nichols excited to see O’Connor in the fall. While he couldn’t speak specifically about O’Connor because he hasn’t yet enrolled at the school, Nichols did say the Wildcats are transitioning from a pass-heavy offense to a more balanced attack, “so it’s important for us to get a running back who can carry the load for us.” O’Connor had three 200-yard games last year and four games with at least 25 carries.
And toughness is an O’Connor hallmark.
“I promise you there’s not a tougher kid in the region,” said Ken Kincaid, Jefferson’s football coach. “We knew that the other sideline didn’t have a single player any tougher or any grittier than Patrick.”
All of these traits -- the toughness from the football field, the dedication to long-term goals cultivated in the classroom and the desire to be role model for both his siblings and fellow Jefferson students -- could come together over the next 10 days to cap off a tremendous high school career.
“I’d be content when I’m 40 looking back at high school. I had a good run,” he said. “But it all depends on how the state tournament goes. That will really be the kicker. [In a couple weeks] I’ll know exactly how I feel.”