Osbourn High School's wrestling team finished second to defending AA state champion Grundy High School of Southwestern Virginia by a wide margin in last weekend's AA tournament at James Madison University. But one second-place finish didn't put a damper on a season in which the teams' achievements exceeded expectations.
"In a way, you can almost say it was a cinderella season for us," Osbourn Coach Lee Stevenson said. "We weren't even picked to win our district and we suffered a big loss in the dual meet season."
The Eagles finished third in the state tournament last year, their lowest finish in state competition in seven years. But with a younger squad, Osbourn was thrown in with the rest of the pack in the Northwestern District after winning six straight titles. And after the Eagles lost their first district dual meet in four years, changing the direction the team was heading became a driving force for the wrestlers. By the time regionals came, the team had won 15 of 19 dual matches, with three of the losses coming against Group AAA opponents.
"It really felt like a loss last year when we finished third (in the state)," said Stevenson, whose teams have won 61 of 76 dual meets in four years. "Looking back in retrospect we were disappointed, but coaches (and teams) all around the state would have loved to be where we were.
"And this year, after the loss to Broad Run (56-10), we went into practice the next day with the resolve that we weren't going to let that happen to us again. My particular idea was to make it a goal not to lose another dual meet, but I thought it wasn't realistic because we had to wrestle William Fleming (ranked number three at the time in Group AAA by the Roanoke Times)."
Less than a month after the shocking loss to Broad Run, Osbourn had defeated William Fleming, 33-30, avoided any other loss, and had claimed both the district tournament title and the Region B championship. But once again the Eagles, like the rest of the field, fell prey to a powerful Grundy team that returned eight state champions from last year's team.
"Grundy was all by themselves and everyone else fought it out for second," said Stevenson, whose team edged out Poquoson (from the Tidewater area) for second place, 101-97 1/2. Grundy, which had seven individual champions, rolled up 260 points. "I thought we did an outstanding job," Stevenson said. "We took eight wrestlers down here and placed five in the top four."
Until two-time state champion Grundy came along, Osbourn dominated AA wrestling at all levels. The Eagles won state titles in 1983, 84 and 1986, and finished second in 1985.
This season Stevenson was not sure what to expect. Just three wrestlers had participated in the 1987 state tournament, leaving many questions.
The top three returnees for the Eagles all reached the finals of the tournament. Junior Ryan Paterson (27-3), who finished third in the state at 112 pounds last year, won the 126-pound championship. Sophomore Chris Hughes (29-3), at 105 pounds and senior Kelly Kirspell (28-3 at 185) both finished second this year. All three won individual regional titles, along with junior Trent Gibson (25-6 at 132), who finished third in the state. A fifth wrestler, Billy Johnson (25-6 at 145), placed fourth in the state.
Osbourn's program was strong before Stevenson took over after Greg Reed left to take a similar coaching position at McLean High School in Fairfax County. The Eagles won state championships in 1982 and 1983 under Reed.
Stevenson points to a middle school program and area club wrestling as a reason for the school's success.
"By the time they come to us, they have been wrestling since third grade," Stevenson said. "We are just refining technique after making sure they have the basics.
"I guess I'm lucky because (Dean Middle School coach) Leroy Williams and I are good friends. We have a good rapport and it helps the kids when they get here."
"The biggest thing they have going for them is the feeder program," said Reed. "It's like Robinson's (this year's AAA Northern Region champion from Fairfax County). They also build their schedule in such a way to face tougher competition. The AAA schools they face and the tournaments they are in give the kids experience for the region and state competition."
But any advantage the Eagles gained from youth programs was wiped out against Grundy, which three years ago made its move in state competition with a third-place finish. "They will graduate most of their team this year so it will be interesting to see how they do next year," Stevenson said of Grundy.
There will be changes in next year's tournament. Weight classes are changing, with more classes being added in the middle weights while growth allowances are being eliminated.
"Everyone will have to make adjustments," said Stevenson. "But we have always strived to be consistent every year here so I don't think it will be a problem.