Chester-based program has become a wrestling leader in Central Region, State of Virginia

CHESTER — It sounded like thunder.

The boom of quickening footsteps echoed throughout the vast and vaunted room as a team of young men and one young woman - ranging in age all the way from elementary school to high school and even college - jogged, side-shuffled and sprinted together around the perimeter.

After the initial running exercises, the athletes scattered throughout the room and hit the floor for push-ups. Then, without needing a verbal command from their instructors, every athlete flipped over after finishing with push-ups to commence with sit-ups.

There was a radio near the back wall belting out music from a local classic rock station. As the radio randomly - and ironically - played “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones, the young athletes methodically pushed through the warmups without breaking their stride.

The young competitors from there smoothly transitioned into something akin to finding a partner on the dance floor - they’d find a fellow athlete, spar through a section of a wrestling match, and then take on two more competitors, doing something different each time.

Then came the drills.

The wrestlers assembled in a seated circle. Their head coach, Mark Strickland, stepped into the center. He discussed the move, the series, the technique or the wrestling approach that they were learning, and then called up two of the “hammers” - wrestlers whom the younger ones look up to. He had them demonstrate the drill to show what he’s looking for.

The wrestlers broke up into partners, the drilling began and ended, and the cycle repeated with each new move, combo and technique that was introduced.

There’s nothing fancy about the look of this room, but everything that’s in the room has a purpose, or something to say. News articles of the room’s wrestlers’ achievements adorn the back wall. Two aerobic exercise machines, used by the wrestlers when they're not sparring, sit in the back left corner. The floor itself is free of furnishings or equipment - just plenty of space for the students to spread out and wrestle.

On the far side, seventeen singlets line the right wall. These are the wrestling uniforms of the Hall of Famers - the room’s wrestlers who have won not just one, but multiple state titles.

It is here in this old-school purple and white room, located right off of Jefferson Davis Highway, that VA Team Predator has molded - and continues to mold - young wrestlers into champions.

 

THE ORIGINS OF PREDATOR

Out in Mechanicsville, Joe Dance - father of Virginia wrestling legend Joey Dance - built a dome-like structure called the “Thunderdome” as a place for elementary school-aged wrestlers to have good partners and train together.

The group, known as “Thunder” was, in Coach Strickland’s words, “a dynamo elementary school situation - they were well-traveled. It was real physical in there. They were good, hard kids. The parents were all in the room back then - it was just real, real old-school ... just the best talent.”

But Thunderdome closed down as Joe moved out of Mechanicsville with son Joey for high school purposes.

Around that time, some of the parents who were involved in Thunder came up with the concept of “Predator.”

And then in 2009, VA Team Predator brought on Strickland as the technician wrestling coach - a subcontractor.

At that time, Strickland, coming from a high school position, didn’t have decision-making power in the club and was there to train the team. Strickland in his first couple of years still didn’t know if he wanted to be a career club guy, and at this time, there was a braintrust that wanted to control the direction of the club. But the club’s athletes weren’t reaching the highest levels they could reach, Strickland said. They were peaking out at a younger age.

“I had a bigger idea and bigger plans and higher expectations of things that included the youth all the way up to the high school - a more balanced, well-traveled and bigger staff," Strickland said. "An idea to get them to college.”

And once Strickland made that mental commitment, put both feet in and figured out, “Okay, we can really do something special here,” everyone got motivated. The new board took the approach of letting Strickland direct the club while the board members worked to get the team what they needed.

It’s been like that ever since.

STRENGTHENING THE REGION

Strickland came in when the Central Region was “by far the worst region in the state and had been” for a while, with the norm consisting of the Southeast Region’s #4 not only beating, but pinning the Central Region’s #1 wrestler in state tournaments.

“There was just no expectation,” Strickland said.

That has changed.

Looking at the Central District alone, Matoaca won back-to-back-to-back team state championships in 2014, 2015 and 2016, with two individual wrestlers taking titles the following year. This past season, Prince George High School saw its first-ever state title winner in Jakob Kennedy. He’s gearing up for a college career at VMI.

“There’s no one that has pushed me to where I am more than Mark Strickland,” Kennedy said the day he won his championship in the 160-pound division of Class 5. “He always believed in me and saw potential I didn’t always see in myself. It’s truly amazing.”

Kennedy’s childhood friend Joe Paul has his singlet hanging on the wall. Wrestling for Maggie Walker Governor’s School, Paul first won the state title as sophomore, then did it again as a senior while battling mono.

Colonial Heights this past season saw Predator wrestler Jacen Fowlkes place second in Class 3 for the 160 weight division, and Hopewell’s Mackenzie Cruey, who has also wrestled in national tournaments and ranks #2 in the state in high school girls wrestling, became the first girl to make Predator’s dual team.

“Just all-around ... I’m a 10-times better wrestler since I’ve been training there,” Cruey had said earlier of Predator.

Strickland estimated that, over the past six to seven years, the Predator Room has averaged about nine state champions a year.

That includes Joey Prata, who was Jakob Kennedy’s first drill partner at Predator. He’d go on to become a National Prep and VISAA State Champion, and now wrestles at Virginia Tech.

That also includes Austin Coburn, who won one state title, wrestled at Old Dominion and graduated with a 4.0. He’s now part of the Predator Room’s coaching staff.

The club, Strickland said, is changing the state - “it’s definitely changing our region” - with groups now trying to emulate what Predator is doing.

“I’m pretty proud of that,” he said.

In transitioning from high school to club, Strickland came to see that the doors to what they could do were open: they could travel anywhere they wanted to, have as many coaches as they wanted to and communicate however they wanted to. They had their own facility, and they could do private training, train both freestyle and folkstyle wrestling and practice year-round - things that. on the high school side, have limitations.

Strickland is proud of the program that they’ve been able to build, and they’re continuously working to improve it.

“We want to be the biggest thing,” Strickland said. “You aim to get ‘em to college of course - that is the measuring stick - but along that way to do that, you’ve gotta travel and correct."

'THE MOST WELCOMING PLACE EVER'

“Come in one time” - VA Team Predator President Gillian Baker tells curious parents who are wondering if their children would benefit from the club - “and your kid will walk into that room and look around and be like, ‘Ahhh, this is where that kid goes’ [or] be like, ‘Ohhhh, this is why he’s so good!’”

When she first came in as a mom who didn’t know anything about wrestling, it was overwhelming.

“Because you hear stories about the place and you wonder if they’re true,” Gillian said, “and you get there, it’s the most welcoming place ever. The parents are awesome. The coaches are so about the kids ... it’s just an awesome place.”

Gillian and Strickland have a great working relationship, and she and the board work to support Strickland and his team through raising extra funds through fundraisers, organizing, communicating with parents and communicating with Strickland (“Our communication line is open 24 hours a day,” Gillian said) about what’s happening wrestling-wise in the State of Virginia and how to keep the club going in a forward motion.

“It’s just a neat process to be a part of,” she said, adding that “board members don’t get anything. They don’t get special treatments. They don’t get a discounted price on anything. They get nothing. You’re a volunteer, so you have to absolutely love it to want to do it.”

WORKING TOWARDS THE CENTER

A casual observance of the Predator Room’s occupants appears to show an age divide, with the bigger and older wrestlers going toe-to-toe in the middle and to the right of the entrance, and the younger and newer student-athletes sparring off in the left wing and along the wall.

It goes deeper than that. As a wrestler in the Predator Room, you work your way through a hierarchy.

“You always start on the outside of the room, and throughout the years, the more skilled you get, the more you move in towards the middle,” rising Monacan High School senior Ethan Carpenter said. “That’s where you drill most of the time.”

When Fowlkes was wrestling with VA Team Predator in his elementary school years, he remembered seeing older wrestler Robert DuPont demonstrating techniques in the circle of the room, and he wanted to be there.

“One day Strickland grabbed me and I was like, ‘All right, this is my chance,’” Fowlkes said, “and I messed it up, but I’ve definitely worked my way up, and now they look at me how I used to look at everybody else.”

Fowlkes was among the wrestlers to demonstrate moves and techniques as his seated peers looked on.

“It’s interesting to see them fight off of that wall to get the respect to be closer to the middle,” Strickland said, adding: “There is a leadership quality that is earned to be out there doing demonstrations ... they generally know the hammers are gonna do the demos, so they want that responsibility.”

Although when they first come in, they don’t want it - Strickland said with a laugh - and they’ll take the approach of: “I’ll sit here and watch this.”

But, he added, “As they get older, they really can appreciate that level of respect, and their peers look at ‘em in that way, too.”

LEARNING FROM DEFEAT

Through wrestling with VA Team Predator, Fowlkes, a rising high school junior, has bettered his self-control and attitude towards matches.

“I used to take losses and I’d go crazy about it ‘cause it really got to me - I was like, ‘I shouldn’t lose to this kid,’” he said. “And now I’ve learned that, ‘All right, I’ve made some mistakes in the match, and I can go correct it at practice.’”

Representing Colonial Heights High School, Fowlkes made it all the way to the Class 3 final, but took a hard loss to finish as the state runner-up in the 160 weight class.

 “Next year," he said, "I plan on winning it for sure because my goal is to win it twice …”

... and hang his singlet on the wall.

Fowlkes’ main sparring partner during this past Tuesday’s practice, Ethan Carpenter, has been wrestling since he was 4 years old.

So when he first stepped into VA Team Predator’s Room nine to 10 years ago, he had roughly three to four years of wrestling experience under his belt as a youngster.

His first impressions of the Predator Room?

“When you’re first in here, you’re going against a lot of good guys,” he said. “It’s a little scary and maybe a little intimidating.”

And he got his butt kicked.

He credits those butt-kickings to where he is now.

“You start to realize, ‘Hey, they keep doing this to me; how do I fix that?’” Carpenter said. “And that’s kind of how you learn.”

Carpenter is now a rising senior with his final high school wrestling season up ahead of him at Monacan. He’s coming off a junior year in which he won the Region 4B 152 weight class title and placed third in the Class 4 state tournament.

He’s looking for bigger things his final high school season, with the mission of becoming the first state champion in Monacan Wrestling history.

“We have a lot of pride in that expectation,” Strickland said. “State championships are special.”

Rising New Kent freshman Nicholas Vafiadis, who has been wrestling for over a decade and joined VA Team Predator seven years ago, remembered taking those butt-kickings as well.

“I cried my first time - I cried probably, for the first year I got my butt kicked everyday,” he said.

But through the room, Vafiadis learned discipline, and how to keep himself on a regimen. He won at the Tulsa Nationals, placed second at Super 32 and made it into the Blood Rounds of both styles in the national tournament at Fargo. His upcoming year’s goals include winning either Beast, Ironman, Super 32, Escape the Rock or all of them. He’s also striving for the long-term objective of becoming an NCAA National Champion.

Fellow rising New Kent freshman Domonic Baker, a seven-year wrestler in his fourth year with VA Team Predator, credits the intensity of the room with changing his mentality and how he wrestles. When Domonic came out of his first practice there, his mom Gillian remembered him saying: “Please, let me come back here!”

Dominic’s excited for the high school season and the chance to wrestle in states. He aspires to be a state champion and succeed in the top competitions including Beast, Ironman and Super 32. Baker was a middle school champion and, along with Vafiadis, placed second at Super 32.

“It’s really a tough room,” Baker said of the Predator Room, “and I like that about it.”

The Predator wrestlers are well-traveled, as the coaches take them to Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and - recently - Fargo, North Dakota for the national freestyle tournaments.

“They’re on those big stages all the time,” Strickland said, “taking quality losses and then that correction.”

And when they come home, he said, they have tremendous confidence, with the strength of schedule paving the way for the wrestlers to dominate in the state.

But you’ve got to travel and take those losses, because, per Team Predator VA’s saying, “You get through all the losing to get to the winning.”

“I tell them, ‘You’re gonna wrestle people that are better than you, and how do you get better? How do you get the respect?’” Strickland said. “‘Yeah, they’re probably gonna beat you by points, but if you give up...there’s no respect there. But when you get in there and you’re fighting, fighting with the best you can fight and scrap, then there’s respect, and now you just start climbing up the ladder. It’s effort.”

WORK ETHIC

In the Predator Room, Vafiadis sees a brotherhood - a unity that they all have. And when he first came into the room as a much younger wrestler, the older competitors - including Robert DuPont - saw him as a little brother.

DuPont, a collegiate wrestler at Division I school VMI, was right there with his fellow competitors training in the room on Tuesday. He’s been with VA Team Predator since sixth grade.

“I didn’t think I could finish the first practice,” he said.

He’s done far more than that.

One of the singlets on the wall belongs to DuPont - a two-time Virginia state champion. Now a wrestler at VMI, DuPont, according to his Predator coaches, maintains a GPA of 4.0 and is the #1 student in his class.

His grades, who he is as a person - those things stem from his work ethic …

... which he learned from Team Predator.

“Everything I do,” he said, “I try to be the best that I’m at.”

The level of commitment that Predator’s athletes come to reach, Strickland said, is addictive. They have students who come from all over - the Tri-Cities, New Kent, Richmond, Hampton Roads, the northern parts, Appomattox and even Roanoke - to train in Chester.

“They do come from all four regions, and I think that’s great,” Strickland said. “They’ve got to have their lives in order to make that kind of commitment.”

Gillian said that wrestling at Team Predator has taught Domonic that “you have got to focus, and you’ve got to put your best foot forward.”

 

GETTING THEM COLLEGE-READY

Right now, Team Predator has a stacked class of 11 eighth graders who are already being recruited by the Division I programs in the state.

“They know what’s coming,” Strickland said. “I’m really proud of that group.”

That will further on an already strong tradition that Team Predator has built in sending wrestler after wrestler to college.

“That’s the ultimate thing,” Strickland said.

This summer, when the Predator wrestlers would conclude workouts at a Fargo training camp held at Virginia Tech, they’d watch the VT college team’s practice.

“And there were eight VA Team Predator guys in that practice,” Strickland said, “and that’s the most talented room in the state. It’s insane. They’re a Top 10 program in the country, and there were eight guys probably out of the 40 that were in there training, and they were doing great, man! They were right in there with the best guys in the country.”

THE STYLE OF TEACHING

The club’s commitment to its wrestlers stretches beyond the mat and outside of that big room in Chester.

“They understand that we want grades and we have personal relationships and we travel with their parents and we communicate well,” Strickland said.

And the instructional style is old-school.

First, the instructors teach the basics, explain everything and break it down, and then they’ll add on to the techniques and the series of moves that the wrestlers learn.

It’s repetition upon repetition that the teachers feel “gets into your nervous system that you can output in pressure situations.”

It’s making corrections - fixing, fixing, fixing - and getting down the fundamentals.

It’s emphasizing hard drilling.

It’s growing intensity.

And it’s entering that tandem with a wrestling partner in which you’re pushing him or her, and he or she is pushing you back to become a better competitor.

Fowlkes has learned a lot from his teammates, including different moves - he’s really good with the cradle, whereas some of his teammates are good with the sweep, and he’ll try to learn how they do that and other moves.

“You contribute to each other,” he said. “You help each other out.”

“You couldn’t be good without your practice partners,” DuPont added. “It’s a lot on them, a lot on you.”

No matter what generation comes through the room, DuPont said that they all want to be the best, and they’re all determined to win.

“It’s great people you want to be around,” he said, “If you want to be your best, the best place to be is here.”

Gillian said that Team Predator has changed her son Domonic “110 percent.”

“He is the most respectful person I know,” Gillian said. “He tries as hard as he can in every aspect of his life.”

The coaches constantly refer to their wrestlers as great people, which is something that they push both with the athletes - they’re not allowed to show disrespect - and their parents, to whom Strickland says: “All these kids want to hear is that you’re proud of them and they don’t want any judgments.”

“These guys are in the car a lot with their parents and there’s weight cutting and there’s all these problems and losing,” Strickland said, “and the relationship with their parents I think is critical.”

They also reinforce the relationships between the wrestlers themselves.

“Anytime you’re pushing a group of kids, they bond,” Strickland said. “They really bond. They’re going through something together.”

'ALWAYS BROTHERS'

Everyone in the room, Fowlkes said, is a family. On the back of several of the wrestlers’ training shirts were the words “Always Brothers.”

“Everyone here knows everyone,” he said.

During the second half of Tuesday’s training session, Fowlkes could be seen sitting next to and talking to one of the much younger wrestlers in a welcoming, get-to-know-you way.

“The little kids, they look up to us,” Fowlkes said. “You’ve gotta set a good example for them and how they should be when they get to our age.”

They’re competitive with each other, Gillian said, but they’re “the best of best of friends.”

“They like each other ... they pick each other up,” Strickland said. “Wrestling’s not supposed to be this team sport, but it is with us. These guys will never reach their own full potential without their team.”

The atmosphere of the room is also one of like-minded focus, both Carpenter and Baker agreed.

“We came here to train, and that’s what we’re gonna do,” Carpenter said. “There’s a lot of grit and just pride in this room.”

“Everyone in here, they get better and train hard,” Baker said. “Same with the coaches ... they get us better.”

THE COACHES

Early on, Strickland and the team made a big push to expand the coaching staff in order to accommodate the different body types, ages and styles that comprised the room.

That way, “everybody’s gonna fit with somebody,” Strickland said.

Domonic Baker said he wouldn’t be there without all of his coaches - Strickland, Coburn, Frank Eberly, Sonny Close, Buddy Scarborough, Justin Noblin, Brad Bates and Paul Turley for making him the wrestler he is today. It was Turley who helped get Fowlkes started in wrestling.

“The staff now is just tremendous,” Strickland said. “You’ve got these young guys from (Div. I), or you have these older guys who’ve been through it and they’re just all into it.”

And the coaches, Gillian Baker added, are not getting rich from doing it - “they’re just doing it to be a part of something awesome.”

“The coaches push the kids as far as they want to get pushed,” Gillian said. “The kids respect the heck out of the coaches. They’ll call the kids and they will check on them after certain matches or they’ll review their videos, and one coach ... will find videos (of wrestling) on YouTube or something, and he will then send them to the kids and say, ‘This is how you could’ve countered that,’ or, ‘This is what you should’ve done there.’

"They just never stop thinking about the kids,” she said. “They talk to them all the time about their eating and what they’re doing outside of the wrestling room. They check on them when they’re outside the wrestling room if they haven’t been there in a while. They send them workout programs outside of wrestling, and the kids do it, because they respect these coaches.”

“They’re just great role models; I aspire to be them one day,” DuPont said of his coaches. “Every practice, Strickland’s always got something good to say. No matter what it is, it’s always very optimistic and uplifting.”

THE REASONS

The biggest driving force to Team Predator’s successes, in Strickland’s mind, is the personal attention that his large staff of coaches is able to provide to the wrestlers.

“We assign wrestlers to coaches during the year, and those coaches talk with those kids everyday or every other day,” Strickland said. “They call, they meet with them, they talk with them, they get them their plan ... we really care that much. We take it home.”

DuPont’s take on why so many singlets hang on the wall boils down to one key word.

“Dedication,” he said. “You can’t miss practices, you’ve gotta show up. You’ve got to be your best every day you come in here. There’s no slacking from your diet, your personal life. You’ve gotta weight train, everything. It’s all gotta be in order and balanced.”

Nick Vandeloecht may be reached at nvandeloecht@progress-index.com, 804-722-5151 or @NickVanDelPI on Twitter.