Robinson turns message into triumph
One word rang above the grunting in Robinson’s mat room over and over again this week: grit. A few wrestlers would need to emerge as champions at the Virginia 6A North region meet Saturday, Robinson Coach Bryan Hazard stressed, but dethroning two-time defending champion Battlefield would require gritty performances from his less-heralded grapplers scrounging for points in the blood round.
Hazard’s message sank in. Robinson got points from 12 wrestlers Friday and Saturday at Fairfax High, produced four individual champions in Saturday evening’s finals and won the meet with 188.5 points, ahead of runner-up Battlefield’s 168 and third-place Hayfield’s 161.
Even before the finals got underway, the damage was done. Numerous overtime victories in the afternoon’s consolation rounds pushed Robinson to a 14.5-point lead over Battlefield heading into the finals, helping the Rams capture their first team title since 2014.
“If we didn’t have them scoring points [in the consolation rounds], Battlefield might have caught up to us,” said Robinson sophomore Thomas Mukai, who claimed the 220-pound title. “It would have been a completely different tournament.”
A quick first-period pin by junior Aaron Howell in the 106pound final set the tone for a Robinson squad that snatched three of the first four individual championships Saturday evening.
Battlefield was the definitive favorite to win its third consecutive region championship this winter. Bringing back defending region champions Brandon Wittenberg and River Curtis, the Bobcats put local opponents on notice when they produced six out of the 14 individual champions at the 30-team NOVA Classic in December.
The Rams didn’t boast that kind of firepower, but they did maintain plenty of depth. As the postseason got underway last week, though, Hazard saw something more promising in his charges: They were getting better.
“The improvement that we’ve seen over the last month and a half from some of these kids is remarkable,” Hazard said.
No one improved more than Will Merritt. The senior spent last season toiling away on Robinson’s junior varsity, and he entered the season as the Rams’ backup behind Hayden Rockman at 160 pounds. Then Donny Warter dropped down from the 182-pound class to 170, leaving a vacancy that assistant Coach Michael Mukai encouraged Merritt to fill.
Extra lunches, dinners, chicken, rice and protein shakes only boosted Merritt from 159 pounds to 165, but that didn’t stop him from becoming Robinson’s new starter at 182. Merritt used superior cardio to outlast three opponents in triple overtime over the weekend, earning him a sixthplace finish that qualified him for next weekend’s 6A state tournament in Virginia Beach.
“If somebody came up to me at the beginning of the season and said, ‘Hey, you’re going to wrestle 20 pounds under and go to states,’ ” Merritt said, “I would have laughed at them and said, ‘You’re funny.’ ”
Andre Turets also battled through three triple-overtime matches in the consolation rounds, winning two of them to secure sixth place at 195 pounds. Warter, meanwhile, grinded through several tight finishes of his own to grab fifth place at 170.
Robinson’s Nik Gerard outlasted West Springfield’s Anthony Bruno for a 7-5 decision in the 120-pound final, and Sam Book followed with a second-period pin at 126. Mukai executed a late reversal to pin his old middle school teammate, James Momon of South County, at 220.
Robinson’s Nik Gerard, top, outlasts West Springfield’s Anthony Bruno in Saturday’s 120-pound final.