Second place hurts. The varsity wrestling team finished their season as Virginia 1A state runner-ups, as Rural Retreat bested the Panthers by 121 points en route to their third consecutive state championship. Nine of the 11 wrestlers Rappahannock sent down to the Salem Civic Center last weekend earned all-state honors, meaning they finished in the top six of their respective weight classes. Starting strong on Friday and throwing up 87 team points in the preliminary rounds, the team was very much in the running for the title.
Saturday, however, was a different story, as the boys only won four of 15 matches, and Rural Retreat yielded seven individual state champions.
State runners-up: Christian McCracken at 145 pounds, Ethan Foley (170) and David Smoot (220). Fourth place: Hunter Nicodemus (106) and Johnny Beard (182). Fifth: Olin Woodward (126) and Chris Corbin (152). Sixth: Sam Barnes (113) and Christian Poffenbarger (138).
The team’s final match of the season for the team was also two-time state runner-up 220-pounder David Smoot’s last wrestling match of his high school career. As scripted, Smoot (49-1) faced the man who beat him in the finals last year, three time state champion (37-0) Caleb Spurlin of Galax.
“And David was pretty beat up, his knee was really bothering him,” Assistant Coach Conner Miller said Monday (Feb. 22), noting that all the other Rapp all-staters are underclassmen. “But at the same time, it was his senior year. And he wanted it, and he wanted to wrestle Spurlin in a state finals rematch. And I have nothing but great things to say about that kid, the way he handled himself, and the way that he left it all out there.”
Conner, Assistant Coach Hodge Miller and Head Coach Alex Coffroth assembled at the Miller’s Ginger Hill Farm Monday night, to look back on a successful season, to commiserate on some tough losses, and to plan for the offseason so as to hit the ground running for another shot at Rural Retreat. Hodge is the self-proclaimed bulldog; he keeps the boys in line, warms them up physically and mentally before matches, and comforts or coaches them after matches. High school English teacher Coffroth’s recruiting filled the 14 weight class line up (which has always been difficult for the wrestling team in years past), and his rigorous tournament scheduling turned the post season into their easiest string of tournaments. 25-year-old Conner, a two-time high school state champion wrestler and multi-national champion middle school wrestler, is the technician, providing the wrestlers with solid fundamental instruction and drilling on moves and countermoves.
“But what really impressed me [with Smoot] was that, at the end of the match, when the final whistle blew, David stood up,” Hodge Miller added, “he threw his shoulders back and poked his chest out, and walked up to Spurlin, and shook his hand, and patted him on the back, and then went over and looked the Galax coaches in the eye and shook their hands. And he looked proud, not happy, but proud.”
The wrestling team managers tape each match on Coffroth’s iPad, and the boys spend the week reviewing tape to find errors or opportunities for improvement.
“You see your work every single time you step out on the mat, because maybe you were weak when you came into the room,” Conner said, commenting on how the 25-year-old UVA grad’s youth wrestling experience shaped his life. “You dedicated yourself all year to doing extra pull ups, extra push ups, extra time in the weight room, and by the end of the season, you’re bigger, you’re stronger, and you’re able to win matches with your strength. Or maybe you come in, you’re strong, you’re a physical specimen, but you have no technique. You spend the time dedicating yourself to that, you see the results. You see results of your work or lack of work. And I think some of our kids kind of saw that this weekend, good or bad. Some kids didn’t do as well as they hoped, or thought they were going to do, and then some kids totally surprised us by making it as far as they did. And it’s a lesson, it’s a harsh lesson, but it is invaluable.”
Coffroth added: “Better it happens here than in the real world.”
“Like I was saying, coaches and fans at the Civic Center from all over the state were congratulating our success, and it just didn’t sit well with me,” Conner Miller continued. “Because I think we performed well, and I don’t want to sound like I’m not incredibly proud of what the kids did all year long, and all the way up to states and at states, but we just could’ve been better. And I think the kids, every single one of them knows that they could’ve done better. And I think that that’s a GREAT thing, that they’re not happy with second place. They’re happy that they did get second, and they’re happy to get to where they are, but they’re not SATISFIED with second place, and I think that’s so big.”
To compete against the Rural Retreat dynasty next year, Coffroth says that there needs to be full community buy in. The south western Virginia team virtually brought the entire town to the state tournament, filling a whole arena seating section with black and orange t-shirts, hats already embroidered with 3X to represent their impending three-peat. Fans held popsicle sticked masks of their coach Rick Boyd over their own faces as they’d erupt after each dominant victory. Hodge noted that Fauquier, Christiansburg, Grundy and Rural Retreat — the 4A – 1A state championship teams — all had a huge fan base, and wore t-shirts or other gear with sponsorship logos on them.
“At the beginning of the year, the goal is always a state championship,” said Coffroth, this year’s 1A East Regional Coach of the Year, at 26 years old. “But if it doesn’t work, you have to change what you’re doing, otherwise it’s insanity: doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. So we’ve got to find ways to add. My first year here, we had two kids qualify for states and one place eighth. So my first thing was to add a summer camp. And then the next year we had a state champion, and we added Hodge to the staff. And then the following year we added Conner. We took the most ever to states Conner’s first year. We doubled that this year. We turned two silver trophies into gold trophies, conference and regionals respectively, adding three more tournament championships — from Northumberland, Eastern View and Washington and Lee — and then we got a silver at the state. Now we need to turn that one into gold.”