Wood, Strasburg community making the most of Rams’ Wrestling Program

Strasburg’s wrestling program is a lot of things, but it is not new. It’s not a fledgling upstart, five or six years removed from a school board petition and a fundraiser for uniforms. It’s an established program, situated at the literal crossroads of some very competitive regions.

That was a compelling set of circumstances for Mike Wood, who just completed his fourth year at the helm of Strasburg’s wrestling program. After he came to the Shenandoah Valley from Pittsburgh seven years ago, he started lending a hand with wrestling programs farther down Interstate 81, but he admits to being underwhelmed by the status of those programs. With rare exception, wrestling was an appendix – a sport whose existence went, for the most part, unnoticed and unheralded.

Then, he took a trip to Strasburg, and it was obvious that the culture was noticeably different. Fans packed the stands at events; they were loud; they understood what was going on.

In a word, they were invested.

So it wasn’t surprising when Wood jumped ship and interviewed for the Strasburg coaching job when it came open in 2013. When he was offered the job, he took it without hesitation.

Wood’s primary background in the sport traced back to his roots in Pennsylvania, one of the premiere destinations for high school wrestling. Up north, it rivals football as one of the domineering spectacles of the sports landscape.

When he came to Strasburg, he thought that the wrestling scene looked familiar.

“It reminded me of Pennsylvania,” Wood said. “The athletes were hard-nosed... it’s the culture. It’s in the culture.”

Wood returned the favor for the Rams, bringing a little piece of Pennsylvania down to the northern neck of the Shenandoah Valley. He emphasized physicality and perfected technique – two points that may seem basic to even a non-wrestler, until you check Strasburg’s dual record under Wood over the last four years. There’s nothing basic about it.

The Rams aim to win 30 duals over the course of each season – a lofty number for any program – and so far, they’ve done it each of Wood’s first four seasons.
Wood credits his departing senior class for that.

“This class generated 12 state medals over the last four years,” Wood said. “That’s pretty good, as far as being consistent goes. They’ve won 120-some odd duals, which is kind of unheard of.”

One of the keys to amassing so much success at SHS has been the schedule. Wood routinely makes use of the interstates running through Strasburg, trekking his wrestlers to tough regional meets in Pennsylvania or West Virginia early in the season. That pays dividends later, when Strasburg has to square off against 3A rivals in northern Virginia, as well as 2A wrestling juggernauts like Grundy.

This year, for example, Strasburg participated in a big inter-state wrestling tournament in Beckley, W.Va. The Rams went 9-1, losing only to Greenbrier East. The 9-1 outing earned Strasburg a seventh place finish out of a few dozen schools; Greenbrier East finished in the top five.

There are opportunities for improvement in the summer, too.

“Since I’ve been there, we go to three camps a year in the summer,” Wood said. “And we always have two of them at Strasburg High, and I bring in coaching friends from Pennsylvania that were Olympic coaches at the training center in Colorado Springs. Or Division 1 national champions. Guys I grew up with. They come out and do three or four days camps with me. Pretty much my whole team shows up... we hand pick some of the more advanced young guys that can follow techniques, and we bring them in, too. They’ve been exposed to this now, even as fifth, sixth and seventh graders.”

The young ones are arguably the most important attendees — Wood and the Strasburg community have put extra emphasis on upstart feeder programs, setting up the next generation of Strasburg wrestlers before they even step foot in a ninth grade classroom.

All the extra bells and whistles might seem unusual for a public school like Strasburg. Unsurprisingly, athletic director Matt Hiserman is “incredibly supportive” of Wood’s scheduling ambition, and the fans travel well.

“They let me go where I want to take these guys during the season,” Wood said. “I don’t have to jump through hoops to expose these kids to a high level of wrestling.”

That investment shows up when the postseason comes around. Strasburg is 4-for-4 on winning the conference tournament under Wood. The Rams have also won the district twice and notched two regional crowns, too. They’ve had several individual state champions – most recently, it was junior Brandon Swink (120), who finished the season with 17 pins and a 46-4 record. As a team, they’ve finished second, third, third and second at four state meets.

Strasburg is still chasing that elusive first-place finish at the state meet. Grundy, which just won its record-setting 20th state title, is a big obstacle. These days, it’s rare to find a season where another school has a shot at beating it. Grundy has won five of the last six state championships, with the only reprieve from its reign coming in 2015. Clarke County seized on the opportunity that season, winning the state title over the usually-untouchable Golden Wave; Strasburg finished third.

Recent history seems unlikely to phase Wood and the Rams, though. His goal every season is simple.

“Every year, we plan to win a state championship,” Wood said, his voice resonating with the sort of calm, steady, unwavering pitch that suggests it’s not just coaching rhetoric.

Strasburg has had its fair share of setbacks. Just this past year alone, returning senior Ethan Duckworth suffered a serious injury near the end of the football season, hamstringing his season. The Rams also dismissed a key returner for issues unrelated to wrestling.

Wood makes no excuses. Instead, he just keeps setting program goals.

“As far as the school goes, I want to keep producing conference, district, regional titles,” Wood said. “Eventually, we’ll get that state title.”

At this point, it seems more likely than not. With unique camps, a solid network of feeder programs, elite scheduling and an invested community, Strasburg seems primed to break through sooner rather than later.

It would mean a lot for Wood, too.

“I’ve never coached a team that won a state title. It would be nice to do that here at Strasburg – it’s a community and a tradition that deserves to get there again,” Wood said.

Until then, the Rams will return to the wrestling room, right around the corner from Strasburg’s glittering trophy case, with one thing on their mind.

“We want to win a state title; the last one was 17 year’s ago,” Wood said. “We’ve come close, but second is not first.”

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