This article was corrected on Feb. 4 at 1:30 p.m.
As long as Robinson’s varsity squad was in the field, every high school wrestling meet in the area looked like a foregone conclusion last year. The loaded Rams dominated the competition en route to district, regional and state championships. It seemed that the only ones who could beat Robinson wrestlers were the Robinson wrestlers themselves.
This year it appears the only thing that could beat Robinson would be a rabid pack of grizzly bears. With most of their top wrestlers returning, the Rams entered this season with lofty expectations, and so far they haven’t disappointed. None of their local meets have been close, though it’s their success on the national level that has turned heads.
Most of Robinson’s meets so far this season have involved bus rides to other states, including a trip to the Vanguard Invitational in Philadelphia last weekend that saw them come out over 100 points ahead of the seven other teams in the field. Four of the Rams’ tournaments this season — the Walsh Jesuit Ironman, Beast of the East, Manheim, and Escape the Rock — are rated among the top 15 events in the country. Last month the Rams finished 12th at the prestigious Ironman tournament, then placed 15th at Beast of the East in Delaware, where they finished 32nd last year.
“We could go wrestle a smaller school or at an easier tournament and our mistakes won’t be taken advantage of because a couple of our kids would be that much better,” Robinson coach Bryan Hazard said. “At those big tournaments we’re wrestling against top kids and our mistakes cost us, which is great because then we can see that on film and we can work on it.”
Competing against so many high-caliber teams has meant that every wrestler on Hazard’s roster has racked up at least three or four losses this season. As a result, only Jack Bass, a senior wrestling in the 152-pound category, is nationally ranked inside the top 20 in his weight class.
Still, Hazard insists individual rankings are less important than the experience gained from competing against the best.
“We want our state tournament to be the easiest tournament that we go to all year,” Hazard said. “We’ve only had four dual meets this year against district teams because I want them wrestling in tournaments. I’m not worried about padding my stats. I’m worried about getting them ready for the state and national tournaments.”
Robinson’s strength this season comes from a roster littered with high-caliber wrestlers across all weight classes. Like other strong high school programs, Robinson has never struggled to accrue talent in the lighter classes, but this year they’re just as formidable in the heavier categories. At the top is Jake Pinkston, a defending regional and state champion in the 285-pound class who currently leads the team with 33 wins this season.
“Robinson is known for having good lightweights, and now we have a really good stack from 152 up to heavyweight,” Pinkston said. “I’m not saying that our lower guys aren’t good, just that we have a strong overall lineup. Our whole team has worked really hard. We’ve been training for this ever since we were freshmen.”
Cole Depasquale, a junior who finished state runner-up at 170 pounds last year, is wrestling strong in the 182-pound class this season. His older brother Zak, a senior who finished fourth in the 160 class at states, also looks poised to do some damage in the postseason next month. Though they now compete in different weight categories, the two brothers have long benefitted from wrestling against each other.
“It’s great for me because if I can do it on Cole, who’s 25 pounds heavier than me, then I can do it against a 160-pounder on the mat,” Zak said. “He gives me the feels I need, I give him the feels he needs and we just work together.”
The Rams are led this year by eight seniors in their starting lineup, seven of whom plan on wrestling in college next year. Bass is a University of Minnesota commit, while Zak Depasquale is bound for the University of Virginia. Dane Robbins will wrestle for Air Force Academy, and Daniel Mika hopes to compete for George Mason. Pinkston, who wants to continue in both football and wrestling, is still weighing his options between Division I and Division II schools.
VHSL realignment created six state wrestling tournaments, meaning each bracket this year will be cut in half from 16 wrestlers to eight. Robinson coaches and wrestlers aren’t celebrating the easier path to glory, but they’re also not about to lose their motivation to come out on top. Even though all nine Robinson competitors placed in the top seven at the state tournament last year, only three made it to the championship matches, with Pinkston emerging as the team’s lone champion.
“Coach always says we have two seasons,” Cole Depasquale said. “First we have the national tournaments in December, and then we have the state tournament at the end of the second [season]. That’s obviously what we’ve been working for in January and in February. Our goal is to get everyone to states and to grind our way through the brackets there.”
The original version of this story indicated that Robinson’s wrestling team didn’t lose a match to a Northern Region opponent last year. The Rams lost a regular season bout to Westfield.