A net hangs in the middle of the West Forsyth High School auxiliary gym. Junior varsity wrestlers practice on one side, varsity wrestlers on the other.
"It’s a totally different level on this side of the net," junior Austin Sanders said, and he’s speaking of the varsity side where the wrestlers are supposed to be more talented and experienced and intense.
The net is not coming down, but its symbolism has been diminished this season for the Wolverines. This is out of necessity. The Wolverines graduated nine seniors off last year’s team that was one match away – twice – from reaching the state duals tournament, leaving the program with an extreme deficit in experience.
West head coach Steve Stromie’s formula for making up that deficit has been to wrestle as much as possible. Consider the Forsyth County Duals two weeks ago. The Wolverines’ full junior varsity team wrestled that Friday. Half then wrestled with the varsity team the next day.
Four wrestlers already have already recorded at least 25 matches and are on pace to wrestle over 60 by season’s end, which by Stromie’s standards is almost excessive.
But the hope is that West’s relentless schedule, which continued Friday and Saturday with the Coal Mountain Classic at North Forsyth before competing in the Amicalola Classic at Dawson County this weekend, provides a young team with every opportunity to improve.
"We’re only going to take Christmas Day and New Year’s Day off," Stromie said. "We’ve got to turn that youth into experience."
Despite its youth, West isn’t bereft of experience and certainly not of talent. There’s Denver Stonecheck, a sophomore at 120 pounds who was 15-3 entering the Coal Mountain Classic and a returning area champion and state qualifier. There’s Jacob Miller, who was 15-5 at 126. There’s Austin Sanders, who was 13-2 at 182 pounds with first place finishes at the Lambert Invitational and Santa Slams and who might have qualified for state last season if not for a torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament he tried to wrestle through. Stromie said West could have as many as six wrestlers qualify for the state traditional tournament.
For all that talent, Stromie said the team has struggled to replace the leadership those nine graduated seniors provided last season. Indeed, Stonecheck and Miller are just sophomores. Sanders is a junior who finished last season injured and joined the team late this season after earning all-region honors on the football team. The team’s lone senior – Austin Rothenberger – has suffered from a shoulder injury all season.
"We’re a young team right now," Stonecheck said. "We’re rebuilding. It’s tough. Our duals team is not as great as we were last year. We know that in the future, once we’re all seniors and juniors, we should be good again."
"We’re progressing quickly," Sanders said. "Maybe not as fast as we need to, but quicker than we should be."
Stromie and West are eager for that moment, when the Wolverines are again a team in the mix as they were when they won the county title in the 2009-10 season. Stromie expects to have a state placer this season, but is eager for West to return to the level of producing multiple state placers.
He sees those days ahead. Behind Miller, Stonecheck and Sanders, behind a host of junior varsity wrestlers who Stromie and assistant Adam Clack recruited from the football program, behind upcoming middle school wrestlers in West’s feeder program, Stromie sees a chance for the Wolverines to become a serious area contender – when West’s experience becomes a surplus.
So West will just keep wrestling. After area and state duals in early January, the Wolverines will compete in Sham Slam VIII, arguably the toughest regular-season tournament in the state, and the Blue Devil Brawl Invitational at Marietta.
By the end, West could have the same wrestlers but a different team.
"The goal is to maintain and bridge the gap between now and next year and be back in contention," Stromie said. "Give us two years and we ought to be pretty good again, because that youth ought to turn into savvy experience."