The Robinson High School wrestling coaches expected this season to be a rebuilding one. But thanks to a few surprises and a productive "farm team," the Rams are once again among the elite teams in the Northern Region.

Led by Coach John Epperly, the Rams have won 11 Northern District crowns, nine Northern Region titles, and three state championships (in 1980, 1981 and 1985) since 1971. Last year the Rams finished second to Great Bridge of Chesapeake in the Virginia AAA state tournament.

Nine seniors graduated and only three starters, all seniors, returned for this season. Three freshman cracked the starting lineup along with a transfer and a senior who didn't wrestle with the Rams a year ago. Robinson has won all 13 of its dual meets and the Bishop Ireton Christmas tournament title, heading into its final regular season meet tonight against undefeated W.T. Woodson.

"Last year we lost one match with a team that had nine seniors, so this has been a really successful season," said Epperly, who has a 178-24-1 record in 17 years at Robinson.

"It started out as a really young team with only three returning starters," Epperly said. "But we got a transfer from Wisconsin and a wrestler who was out last year because of an injury returned this year."

"Coach {Epperly} told the kids before the year began that if the team finished one game above .500 {in dual meets} that it would be a good year for the team," assistant coach Jim Rike said.

All three freshman came off the Rams' "farm team," known as Rams Boys Club, a club wrestling program for eight to 15 year-olds. The program has two different squads, one that participates within the county, and a select team that competes against teams around the beltway. Many high schools have youth programs to draw from, but most do not get the numbers on the varsity that Robinson gets.

"In years past the numbers {from the club team} weren't very high,' Epperly said. "But in the last few years 75 percent of the team has come from the select program."

All three freshman in this year's starting lineup came from the select team, and two of them, Brian Hazzard (8-4 record at 119 pounds) and Kevin Littley (15-0 at 105) had their fathers John and Kevin Sr., (both former collegiate wrestlers) coach the team. The third freshman, Chad Tuttle, has been a spot starter in the heavyweight class.

Joining the freshman trio are Stacy Gruber (15-1 at 126), the transfer from Wisconsin and Chip Dewalt (11-1 at 145), who missed last year with a broken forearm. Seniors Rob Patten (15-0 at 155), Chris Ellison (12-0 at 167) and Mike Larson (176) anchor the team.

Epperly says the "secret" for the Rams' success lies in having "tremendous material, and a good farm team."

"The idea is to get elementary school (and junior high) kids to practice in a similar format with similar moves so when you get to varsity it's not so much of a change," said Patten, a three-year starter. "Sure it's an advantage but if we didn't have good varsity coaches it wouldn't make a difference."

"John gives the assistants a lot of freedom, lets us run practice at times," Rike said. "But the real difference here is that while winning is important, he always tells the kids if they did their best and lost to a better wrestler, they have nothing to be ashamed of.

"John's a master technician," Rike said, "and he takes pains to analyze matches unlike anyone I've ever worked with."

Chris Ellison, whose younger brother Kyle is starting at 138 pounds as a junior, says a key is Epperly's approach.

"I was lucky when I moved here (from State College, Pa. as a sophomore) I came to such a good wrestling program," Chris Ellison said. "The big difference is the leadership from coach and the insight he has."

"When we come off the mat everything is positive," Kyle Ellison said. "The next day we work on what we did wrong, and even then they (the coaches) tell us the good points."

"We try to keep things as positive as you can," Epperly said, "because there are going to be some setbacks -- that's why it's a great preparation for life."

Robinson has won all of its matches decisively, with its closest call coming in a Northern District match against West Springfield, and in that 34-27 dual meet victory the Rams had the match wrapped up going into the final weight class.

After tonight's district clash against highly-regarded Woodson, preparation begins for the rugged tournament schedule.

"You try and get the kids conditioning at the peak level at the start of districts because they (wrestlers) can usually maintain that a few weeks," Epperly said. "You just hope they can maintain that through the tournament."

Through his years at Robinson, he has had nine different wrestlers win state championships, including his son John Jr., who captured three straight and led the Rams to their last state championship in 1985.

Epperly Sr., went to high school in Norfolk at Granby High School. He was coached by Billy Martin, whose teams won 22 of 23 state championships from 1948-1972. His highest finish was third in the state on a team that had nine individual state champions. He went on to wrestle collegiately at Lockhaven (Pa.), a strong Division I wrestling school, before moving on to coaching in Northern Virginia as an assistant at Yorktown High School.

After four years as an assistant to Chuck Harris at Yorktown, Epperly moved on to Wakefield and Oakton for five years as head coach. At Wakefield his teams won two district titles and a regional championship. After one year at Oakton he came to Robinson where his teams are now perennial contenders for the regional title.

Robinson's success at the state level is something no other Northern Region team has done. Only two other Northern Region teams, W.T. Woodson and Washington-Lee, have won the state tournament -- once each.

Looking back he remembers no formula for success at the state level, only a little luck.

"The first time we won the state we had only four kids who scored points, but we won easily," said Epperly. "But the second time we had eight wrestlers score for us and we barely won."

But this season Epperly and the Rams have been able to achieve success as an underdog, because Woodson and Marshall were expected to be the top teams in the region.

"You would always rather start at the bottom (in rankings)," Epperly said. "Right now we're just competitive and plugging along.

"We've had a lot of years where everybody tried to knock us off," Epperly said. "We like it this way."