Josh Walker has plenty of reasons to be happy this season. The Stonewall Jackson junior is 28-1, winning 18 of those matches by pin. Among 171-pounders, Walker is ranked fourth in the state of Virginia.

But what perhaps has Walker the happiest is the ability to do this season what he was unable to do a year ago: eat whatever he wants whenever he feels like it.

A year ago, Walker wrestled at 145 pounds--nearly 30 pounds under his normal 176-pound frame--to make the Raiders' starting lineup.

The result, Walker said, was a disappointing season on the mat--his year ended with a knee injury--and a living hell off it.

"Oh man, it was horrible," Walker said of the weight-cutting experience.

A nutritionist put Walker on a diet that helped him drop his weight to 155 pounds. To lose the additional 10 pounds, Walker said he basically cut food out of his diet--regularly limiting himself to half a sandwich over a three-day period.

"Those last 10 pounds, they were a killer," Walker said. "So I stopped eating. I went like three days without eating. . . . I was dead. I'd be sitting in class and just fall asleep. It was the worst three months of my life. [Wrestling] became like a job instead of fun."

Walker's toughest competition last season may have come from within his own team, which boasted two successful wrestlers roughly the same weight as himself. Ryan Bishop, who had advanced to the state tournament the season before, competed at 171, and defending state champion Jeremy Rankin was set at 152.

Bishop began last season at 160 but moved up to 171 after a few matches. At that point, Walker said, he had dropped to 145 and could not make up the weight to get back to 160.

Former Stonewall Jackson coach Bill Cameron, now athletic director at Brentsville, said Walker lacked the confidence and possibly the strength to wrestle at a higher weight class, and that the decision to drop the weight and wrestle at 145 was primarily Walker's.

"I don't think he was wild about going to 145, but he wanted to go to 152, and he wasn't going to beat Jeremy Rankin," Cameron said. "So the decision is, do you go to the weight class below [152] or do you go to the weight class above?"

Perhaps Walker's greatest strength, Cameron said, is his toughness. Having wrestled state champions in practice his freshman and sophomore years, Walker got an early taste of big-time high school wrestling. His weakness, Cameron added, is not realizing this toughness.

"If Josh has a drawback, it is his own self, because Josh is a lot tougher than he thinks he is," Cameron said. "I think he has a little bit of self doubt. . . . In the last couple of years he has mixed it up with the best [area] wrestlers in high school wrestling. And he has done pretty well."

Current Stonewall Coach Kevin Turner, an assistant last season under Cameron, said in hindsight wrestling Walker at 145 was probably a mistake. He added the coaching staff did not know Walker was starving himself for so long.

"It was too much weight for him to cut, and he was real brave about it, but he ended up getting hurt," Turner said. Walker dislocated a knee in practice last year just before the Cardinal District tournament, ending his season.

This season has been another story. Since preseason, when Turner witnessed Walker throw Bishop to his back during open gym--something that rarely happens to Bishop in a match--Walker has been on a tear. He won the Herndon Classic--defeating the third-ranked wrestler from California along with Hayfield's Tomas Ovalle, one of the top wrestlers in Northern Virginia.

Walker won his first 24 matches of the season before losing recently at the Woodbridge Invitational.

"He's been a pretty good surprise for me," Turner said. "He has developed in mat awareness, and his strength is unbelievable. . . . And he's the happiest I've ever seen him. He's laughing, joking and, more importantly, coming into the wrestling room focused and ready to go."

Walker's toughest challenge of the season may come Saturday, when Stonewall Jackson is scheduled to wrestle North Stafford as part of a quad meet at Stonewall, which begins at 11 a.m. Wrestling at 171 pound for North Stafford is Kevin Collier, the defending Virginia AAA champion and the top-ranked 171-pounder in the state.

But competing against such wrestlers as Bishop every day in practice is plenty of preparation for any opponent.

"I would think he came into a nice program that had a lot of competent people, especially in the upper weights, and wrestling that competition would make you a lot better," Brentsville Coach Thad Kiesnowski said. "I think that would do more for him than [anything else] because you're in there against [former state champion] Seth [Cameron] and Rankin, and those kids did a lot for his technique and confidence and a lot of what he brings with him this year."

Walker has received letters of interest from a number of schools, but his attention at the moment is focused on his immediate future, the goals for which have changed since December.

"My goals at the beginning of the season were that I wanted to win districts and just make it to states and be there and enjoy the atmosphere," Walker said. "Now I want to go and place [near] the top. I know that is a high goal, but I guess you have to set them high."

The only thing that has made winning even more sweet for Walker this season is that he has been able to do it with a full belly.

"It's great," Walker said. "I'll be eating lunch on the day of the match. I'll be weighing in in an hour and I'll be eating a school lunch--I don't know how good that is for you. . . . I remember last year at lunch, kids are getting double-lunches and I'd be like, 'Man, those were the days.' And now I can get the double-lunch."

CAPTION: Josh Walker, right, squares off against Annandale's Tony Cavalero at 171 pounds, where the Stonewall junior is now 28-1.