Before they competed in the Knockout Christmas Classic in Kissimmee, Florida this past weekend, Powhatan head coach Jonathan Tanaka had been told that this tournament was pretty tough. He and his coaching staff even told their wrestlers as much.
And then they got down there, and it was still way tougher than they expected.
“The biggest thing that we kind of took away…is just they’ve got so many athletes down there in Florida,” Tanaka said with a chuckle. “I don’t know if it’s the water or what, but, man, every kid we looked at looked like just a physical specimen – they are just quick, strong, all that stuff. You put that together with kids that know how to wrestle and it makes it a handful for you.”
Forty-one teams – including 5A, 6A and 7A state champions and runners-up from Georgia, top-shelf competition from Florida and perennial Alabama state title contender Thompson Wrestling – came together to provide an extremely challenging atmosphere with a Division I accent to it.
Powhatan took its lumps, and only two of its wrestlers – Hayden Fitzsimmons at 182 and Linwood Hill at 195 – made it as far as the quarterfinals in their respective weight-class tournaments.
But to see high-level competition that they wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and to get beat up a little bit and see what they’ve got to get better at – it’s why they went down there. And if the stiff competition itself wasn’t enough of a challenge, several of Powhatan’s wrestlers also endured sickness during the trip.
“I got down there and my buddy who’s one of the tournament directors told me that…two or three of the teams from Florida just ended up backing out last-minute because they had several kids out with flu and sickness,” Tanaka said, adding: “I think a lot of our kids that were sick were able to push through it…hopefully some of them learned a little about themselves.”
All told, the adversity Powhatan's wrestlers faced across the multiple fronts made the wins that they did earn that much sweeter.
Nine wrestlers – Fitzsimmons, Hill, Gavin Timmons (132), Micah Holt (220), Sean Hall (126), Bradey Lindhjem (heavyweight), Andrew Cheatham (152), Matthew Bales (152) and Hans Rehme (170) – all came away with at least one Knockout Christmas Classic victory to their names, and both Fitzsimmons and Timmons earned two wins apiece.
Both Lindhjem and Holt joined Fitzsimmons, Timmons and Hill in making it to Day 2 competition.
“All those kids who just made it to Day 2, I thought was a huge badge of honor just in a tournament of that level,” Tanaka said. “It was very tough just to fight out of Day 1…looking through there, every match from Match 1-on was tough.”
Fitzsimmons won his first match by a 4-0 decision over Ben Valdes and pinned his second opponent, Daniel Espino-Delgado (Homestead, FL), in 5:29. But after reaching the quarters, Fitzsimmons took two losses by pins to Nolan Eaddy and Jalen Durham. He was among the wrestlers who didn't feel well during parts of the trip.
Timmons opened his tournament strong by pinning Aiden Reichert (Winter Springs, FL) in 5:27. And then, after he got bounced to the consolation bracket on a tech fall loss in his second match, Timmons pinned Gabriel Vilchez from Miami in 2:34 before taking a loss by pin.
“Gavin Timmons I thought had probably his best tournament in a long time,” Tanaka said. “I know it doesn’t necessarily show on paper, but he just wrestled a lot more under control here, looked a lot just cleaner as far as his technique…I thought he had a really, really good tournament, especially with the level of competition he had to wrestle, just staying under control and just kind of staying within himself.”
Hill defeated Bryson Johnson (Bradenton, FL) in his first match by a 7-1 decision to reach the quarterfinals, dropped down to the consolation bracket on a loss by pin to Demarcus Williams and then took a narrow 3-1 defeat by decision to Bertilus Bornelus.
Lindhjem pinned Timothy Van (Palm Beach Gardens, FL) in 2:41, and Holt returned from a concussion, which he sustained in his team’s first match of the season against Lee-Davis during an invitational at New Kent High School, to take a 5-2 decision over Kourosh Rashidian.
“Took our time coming back from that, making sure everything was good – obviously working with Shelly Mickens our trainer who does a phenomenal job making sure that he was getting everything he needed, and making sure he was 100 percent,” Tanaka said of Holt. “Just real happy that he’s feeling good – he even got put in some kind of tough situations [in the Classic], he got slammed a little bit – and he said he felt fine, so that was a good sign.”
Sean Hall, who recently won both the Lee-Davis Holiday Classic 126 weight-class title and Outstanding Wrestler honors for the lower-weights division of that Classic, but was also among the wrestlers battling sickness in Florida, lost his first match, then defeated Ryan-Moustafa Ullayk (Palm Beach Gardens, FL) by a 12-1 major decision before taking a loss by pin.
“Sean Hall unfortunately wasn’t feeling real great, didn’t have a great tournament, but I think he learned a lot,” Tanaka said. “We always talk about how….wrestling is a microcosm of life and how it’s kind of a vessel, it’s gonna help you. Sometimes in life, you’re not feeling real great, we’ve still got to get up and go to work – same situation here: not feeling real great, but we’ve still got to wrestle, and so just kind of learning how to wrestle when you’re not 100 percent, which is a skill in itself.”
Cheatham pinned Jeremy Tribble (Palm Beach Gardens, FL) in 46 seconds, Bales pinned Carmichael Gonzalez (Avon Park, FL) in 55 seconds and Rehme won against Bakr Khaleel (Palm Beach Gardens, FL) by injury default.
In returning home for the 2020 portion of their schedule – beginning with the Hawk Duals at Hanover High School on Saturday, Jan. 4 at 10 a.m. – Powhatan has a lot of good things on video that the wrestlers can now look at, begin picking apart and start building upon as they venture deeper into the season.
“It was a really good time for our guys honestly to kind of take it on the chin a little bit so they can learn and figure out what they have to do better as we move forward,” Tanaka said, adding that “our biggest growth is gonna come from losses, not from wins, and we’ve got to be able to analyze and self-diagnose and get better in those positions and nothing teaches us that as much as losses, because you get that fire under you from losing on top of just kind of taking a step back and being like: ‘Okay, I lost, but why did I lose?’ And: ‘What worked really well for that kid might work well for me, right? So let me apply some of those things to my game and see if I can pick and choose and add some things to help me get better.’”
Tanaka praised his coaching staff Thomas Smith, Zach Olson and Richard Fitzsimmons for helping their wrestlers with getting down to Florida and gleaning that invaluable experience. He added that Coach Fitzsimmons did a lot of legwork behind the scenes when it came to setting things up, getting food for the kids and getting them all settled in.
Ultimately – to Tanaka and his staff – the trip was about more than just the wrestling – it was about giving their student-athletes something that they could fondly look back on in their later years. From staying in a nice rental house with a pool, to going to a water park together, to going out to eat at a buffet, to stopping by South of the Border on the way back – even if the memories of the wrestling fades, Tanaka hopes those experiences that their wrestlers got to share together on that trip will stay with them for a long time.