While Powhatan this past winter came up just short of grabbing an individual state championship in the 126-pound weight-class division with Sean Hall, the senior-less varsity program had the best-case scenario going into the 2020-21 season.
Everyone who wrestled in the 2019-20 lineup was coming back.
Who could've guessed at that time that this upcoming season would even be in danger of not happening?
And that’s still a possibility. As the days nervously tick down to Powhatan’s first match in January, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility of more school systems withdrawing from winter sports could still lead to Powhatan’s battle-tested seniors in the lineup – Hayden Fitzsimmons, A.J. Gaskin, Sean Hall, Linwood Hill, Micah Holt and Gavin Timmons all among them – missing out on their final season, and with it, their last chance to become state champions.
But as it stands, they’re still wrestling right now. And they’re grateful for the opportunity.
“You’ve just got to make the most out of each day you have, because you don’t know if that’ll be the last one for the season or if you’re going to go all the way,” Hall said. “You’ve kind of just got to prepare like you’re going all the way.”
And if they do get this season, it could end up being a very special one.
This year’s team is loaded with experience. It’s returning all eight of last season’s state tournament qualifiers and four state placers – the most they’ve ever had come back – as well as two state alternates.
With this modified season, it’ll be harder to qualify for the state tournament, as the top two finishers from regionals, and not the top four like in years prior, will advance.
But senior and state qualifier Linwood Hill is 100-percent confident that his team can win the state title.
“This year we have a lot of fire behind us,” Hill said. “Out of 10, the level of talent’s probably a 10.
“To see us from freshman year to now, it’s going to be something special.”
Sean Hall (126/132), who this fall committed to attend and wrestle for Roanoke College, won just about everything last season threw at him – the Arrowhead Invitational, the Big Blue Invitational, the Lee-Davis Holiday Classic and his third regional championship – but after a heartbreaking loss in the 2020 state final, the three-time top-three state placer is still looking for title no. 1.
During the offseason, with the COVID-19 pandemic initially leading to gyms closing, Hall did a lot of running. He estimates he worked out at least two hours every day, and that’s not counting the eight-hour days he’d work at a scrapyard in 90- to 100-degree weather.
“That’s a pretty good workout,” he said, “and I’d still find some time to run after that, too.”
He was able to participate in a USA Nationals folkstyle tournament in Iowa, where he placed second in the 138-pound class, and on Dec. 6, he wrestled and defeated Joshua Pence from Robinson in the 135-pound division at the Vengeance in Virginia Challenge in Sterling.
From junior to senior year, he feels that he’s gotten pretty big – he said he looked pretty cut a couple weeks ago compared to usual – and also that he’s taking his weight better. Hall spoke to the importance of using his offense more and not freezing up any. He said he’ll start the season at 132 pounds and then work his way down to 126.
His teammates Hayden Fitzsimmons (195), second-year varsity wrestler Tanner Palmore (heavyweight) and Gavin Timmons (132) will all look to build on their fourth-, fifth- and sixth-place state finishes, respectively.
Fitzsimmons, bumping up from 182 to 195, is among the wrestlers that Powhatan head wrestling coach Jonathan Tanaka has seen work “really, really, really hard,” and he built on high placements over the course of the season – runner-up finishes at the Lee-Davis Holiday Classic and Arrowhead Invitational and a fourth place at regionals – to place in the top four at states.
Tanaka said Fitzsimmons, who had hit the weights hard this past 12-16 months, is excited about taking the step up to the 195 weight class.
“He feels like he belongs there, he feels like that’s a weight that’s his for the taking,” Tanaka said. “He feels confident, he feels battle-tested.”
Timmons, a standout wrestler since starting for Powhatan, will return at 132. Also a leading cross country runner, Timmons will bring a combination of athleticism and the experience of what it takes to reach states to his senior season. He was the only Powhatan wrestler aside from Fitzsimmons to win twice at last year’s challenging Knockout Christmas Classic in Florida.
Tanaka said Palmore “kind of shot off like a rocket,” quickly impressing in his first year on varsity by placing top-five at states.
“He’s a super tough kid, just a kid that works really, really hard,” Tanaka said, adding that Palmore, who also plays football, is going to be a “totally different kid” after bumping up from around 245 pounds to 265.
“I think you’re going to see a big change,” Tanaka said. “He likes the one-on-one battle, and I think he’s starting to see that it’s really helped his football as well. The balance and the hand positioning and everything that he learns from wrestling, he can apply directly to football.”
Longtime wrestler, leader and Arrowhead Invitational champion Linwood Hill (170/182), 2020 Region 4B champion A.J. Gaskin (152), third-year wrestler and junior Dylan Coward (106/113) and Micah Holt (220) will strive to convert their state-tournament experiences into podium finishes.
When COVID-19 hit and gyms were closed, Hill worked on his conditioning, getting his body right, and with practices under way but concerns about the season going as planned still paramount, he said “you’ve got to practice every day like it’s the last practice.”
Hill is following a career trajectory not oftentimes seen in wrestling. Instead of going up in weight, he’s gone down from 220 pounds his sophomore year to 195 as a junior, and now all the way down to 182 and 170 this year. With the change, he feels a lot quicker, faster and stronger. He’s also been working on his takedowns – and going after those takedowns – a lot more from junior to senior year, and he said his main problem previously was that he’d stop moving.
“That’s what I’ve been working on,” he said, adding that now, “my feet do not stop moving.”
Prior to winning the regional title, Gaskin quickly put himself on the map his junior season when he won all four of his matches at the Hawk Duals in his return from injury-related issues.
Tanaka last season praised Gaskin as a dedicated wrestler and noted that he was one of the guys that they kept seeing over and over at offseason workouts and events.
Gaskin is another one whom they know is talented, Tanaka said – it’s just time for him now to “put rubber to the road” and show everyone else what his wrestling coaches already know about him.
Coward’s hard work in the room culminated in a breakout year that saw him not only win a thriller of a match over Cosby’s Malik Williams to ensure the 34-33 team victory for Powhatan, but also triumph over Caroline County standout Elizabeth Dosado in the consolation semifinals of regionals to punch his ticket to his first state tournament.
“Really, really hopeful for him…he does put in the time. That’s the one beautiful thing about our sport; kids that put in the work usually get rewarded,” Tanaka said. “It’s really, really cool to see him continue to develop, and he finally got a little taste of the state tournament last year. I think now he knows what it takes, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what he can do.”
Tanaka said Holt “was really, really close but had two heartbreaking losses last year” in states; he narrowly fell 7-6 to the eventual fifth-place finisher in the first round.
“As upsetting as it is, he’s a really mature kid – he really understood that, big-picture, he’s come so far,” Tanaka said, adding that Holt is “just an aggressive and strong kid.”
Holt, who’s also a utility player on the football team, will be a full 220 pounds after wrestling in the 205-212-pound range last season.
“I think he’s going to be a different kid that you’re going to see run into you when you get your hands on him on the mat this year,” Tanaka said.
That’s not where the talent stops. Powhatan also returns a ton of potential with football quarterback Hans Rehme (170/182), sophomore Britton Proffitt (138), junior Cade Van Buskirk (145), third-year starter and junior Andrew Cheatham (152/160), Adam Camp (160) and Mitchell Johnson (170).
Rehme, who could bump up to 182, is coming off of a fifth-place regional finish to make state alternate in his first year wrestling in the varsity lineup.
It’ll be a completely different year with football following wrestling, but this winter will be a chance for Rehme to build on last year’s successes, which also include his championship at the Arrowhead Invitational.
For Proffitt, Tanaka said it’s just a matter of getting him more varsity mat time.
“The more competition he sees at that level,” Tanaka said, “the better he’ll be.”
Van Buskirk, a junior, followed up last season’s third-place finish in the Arrowhead Invitational with a keynote win over Goochland standout Max Moreno in the regular-season finale.
“Effort is never a question with him. I think that’s something we can always count on,” Tanaka said. “He’s just a kid that works really hard, that wants to be really good, wants to be successful.”
Cheatham, a state alternate with his fifth-place regional finish last year, has strength, experience and athleticism on his side, as he also contributes to Powhatan’s football and baseball teams. His 2019-20 highlights included a 28-second pin of his opponent in Powhatan’s 41-25 team win over Dinwiddie last December and a finalist appearance in the Arrowhead Invitational.
Camp will be in the mix fighting for a spot and helping his teammates get better. He shined at the Hawk Duals in 2019 when he went 3-1, earning all three of his wins by pins. He also picked up a 16-3 major-decision win over Atlee’s Hayden Morris in Powhatan’s tri meet with Atlee and Cosby.
While Tanaka is not sure how much Johnson, a junior and the starting running back for Powhatan football, will get to wrestle this year with the football season around the bend, he expects that, next year – or “whenever we unleash him” – Johnson is “going to be a force.”
Freshman Talon Harness and sophomore Natalia Sanchez, a Virginia Wrestling Association Folkstyle States champion, are expected to help the team in the 120-pound division.
Hall has known Harness since he was in the fifth grade, and Tanaka praised Sanchez as a hard worker both in the classroom and in the wrestling room.
“For her to be our only female wrestler and come in and work hard and do everything – you don’t even notice honestly that there’s any difference, as you shouldn’t,” Tanaka said. “The team has accepted her from Day 1.”
The team is also looking to get sophomore Kieran Hathaway (106), who took sixth in the Lee-Davis Holiday Classic last year, back up to health.
The preparation has looked different. Wrestlers are separated into four-man pods, meaning they can only wrestle those partners for two weeks at a time, and within those pods, they can only wrestle one partner each day. Hill did note, however, that his practice partners don’t really switch, as he had already been working continuously with Rehme and Fitzsimmons.
As for competition differences, the meets will utilize two mats and alternate between the mats. When an individual match concludes, the mat for that match will be sanitized and disinfected. Referees will no longer raise arms, competitors won’t shake hands and audiences, at this time, will be limited to 25 spectators per field for indoor sports.
Another change is that Powhatan’s Senior Night should now come sooner than later on Jan. 6 (6 p.m.) against Manchester and Maggie Walker at Powhatan High School. Powhatan also expects to live-stream its home meets for fans to view from their homes.
Hill and Hall want to see the team stay together, stay focused, fight for more pins and train like they’re wrestling all the way through February.
“We’re just taking it one step at a time,” Hill said. “Preparation’s not going to change.”
With official wrestling practices kicking off last Monday, just getting back into it has been good medicine for the athletes, Tanaka noted.
“The fact that we’re here now is awesome,” Tanaka said. “From a teaching standpoint, our kids need that, to know that that’s still an outlet for them and they still have that opportunity.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in two months, but right now, they tell us we can wrestle, so we’re going to wrestle today, and hopefully…we can wrestle tomorrow.”
With all of the ongoing uncertainty and the ups and downs and changes that the team has had to traverse – if they get to have a state tournament on Feb. 20, then that, Tanaka said, “might be the biggest win of all.”
But as the wrestling team takes it day-by-day and ensures that it’s doing everything it can do on its end to keep the upcoming season intact, the goal is still to win the state title.
“If we’re going to do it, this is going to be the year that it’s time for us to really, really take that next step that we want to take,” Tanaka said. “It’s going to take everybody. It’s going to take a collective effort. But I think we’re more than capable.”
“To have this senior season – it would be amazing,” Hill said. “Powhatan is at its best right now.”