Cougars sharpen claws for coming season

Manassas Park’s wrestling team is learning that improvement comes in increments, not in giant leaps.

But it’s not like they didn’t really know that already. Cougar coach Richard FitzSimmons reminds his team of that constantly. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will the Cougar wrestling program.

In the Cougars’ garage-turned-wrestling room, banners of the past remind those in the present of what Manassas Park wrestling once was: The Cougars enjoyed a string of state championships from the late 1970s into the early and mid 1980s.

But that was two decades ago.

Even as recently as a few years ago, the Cougars finished fourth in the state. But the years of constant success are gone — at least for now.

Now, the rebuilding is well underway. Though the journey is nowhere near complete, the Cougars have taken important first steps. The next step being a trip to the Group A, Region B tournament on Saturday in Orange County.

With each meet and each tournament, the young Cougars get wiser and more experienced. The team has no seniors, so it counts on three juniors — Billy DePugh, Walter Lurchenfelt and Daniel Wadel — for leadership.

The phrase ‘senior leadership’ is used often by coaches, but what happens when there are no seniors? The leadership falls down a year to the juniors. And depending on who you ask, the task was embraced reluctantly or wholeheartedly.

“Coach has no seniors and only three juniors, so we’re the only ones he can rely upon,” said DePugh. “It’s pretty hard. We are juniors and there are a lot of freshmen, and they look up to us. It’s pretty hard.”

“We’ve got a bunch of eighth graders coming up, and that might be us,” added Wadel.

Lurchenfelt had a different take.

“I kind of liked it,” he said. “We get to be the leaders of the team for two years.”

“They’ve stepped up in a big way. They’re taking on a role they’re probably not ready for,” FitzSimmons said. “They’ve set a good example. They take care of a lot of the captain’s responsibilities.”

If the Cougars need any help in seeing what the future could hold, they only have to look off west to Brentsville — the Tigers are in the midst of a decade-long dynasty.

“I think everybody aims to emulate the team on top,” said FitzSimmons. “I came from Brentsville, so I know their tradition. I’m bringing that same mentality into this room. We’re on the way to being there.”

Enjoying success is easy; it’s the getting there that’s difficult. Lurchenfelt was a bit nostalgic, remembering his freshman year — the last time Manassas Park had a big taste of success.

“It’s frustrating. Two years ago, I was on a good team, so we’re going from a team that finished fourth in the state to one that’s barely winning,” he said. “But I know people are just learning, and next year we should have more experience.”

The discussion often turns to the future — FitzSimmons said his goal this year was to prepare for next year.

“With no seniors, we wanted to build as much experience, technique and knowledge as we could,” he said. “In the offseason, our goal is strength, strength, strength. We were very competitive with a lot of teams, but we had a lack of strength due to our youth.”

The wrestlers themselves are also looking ahead.

“I’d say we have a good chance of doing well,” DePugh said of the future.

“If we were wrestling at the beginning like we were at the end of the year, we’d have had more success,” said Lurchenfelt. “But we got more wins than last year, and that shows we’re improving.”

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