By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
Walk into the gym at Independence, turn around and look up. There you will see a large photo of the wrestling team that won the Class AA/A state championship in 1996.
For 18 years, that photo has hung alone. That will soon change, with the addition of the 2014 team that finally broke the dry spell last Saturday.
In the mind of coach Cliff Warden, it was merely the start of what he set out to do when he replaced longtime coach Ed Gilson in 2005.
“When I took this job — and I might have said it flamboyantly — I told Mr. (Bob) Meadows (the Independence principal at the time) when he interviewed me for the job, my goal is to line the gym with those (pictures). Just wrap it around.”
No one knows what the future holds, but Warden certainly has his intentions. The Patriots posing for pictures with the state championship trophy front and center will, Warden expects, be a common occurrence.
“The mission will stop when the Hart boys, Bolen and myself get out of the business,” Warden said.
Warden was referring to assistant coach Jamie Bolen, youth league coach David Hart and Independence Middle coach Jeremy Hart. And since none of those guys is over the age of 40, no one is likely to be going anywhere anytime soon.
There’s something to be said for stability. The top three teams in the state tournament — Indy, Oak Glen and Greenbrier West — have combined to win 16 of the last 19 championships. Point Pleasant won the remaining three but moved up to Class AAA last year.
Oak Glen won 13 of the 16 consecutively. The stability of having the same successful coaching staff, led by Shady Spring alumnus Larry Shaw, was a big reason for that record run.
Warden, whose team set school records for points in a state tournament with 181 and placewinners with 10, wants to see that kind of dedication rub off on the members of his title team so they can one day take the torch.
“What it’s going to do is for one of these guys — the mission may never end,” Warden said. “That’s what I’m hoping for.”
“Our team has always been pretty good,” 152-pound state champion Noah Adams said. “But the way our coach has pushed us this year just helped us out a lot. Pushing each other in the mat room helps out, and it shows when we go out there in the big show.”
Adams is a perfect example of why Warden is confident of the program’s direction. He and fellow freshman Jacob Hart, David’s son, are freshmen — Hart won the 126-pound title — who are just part of the equation. The Patriots lose just three starters, including Colton Ward, who was fifth at 138. And there are wrestlers coming up from the middle school, including three-time Raleigh County champions Hunter Taylor and Alex Hart — Jeremy’s son.
“I think the future is very bright,” Adams said. “We have a bunch of upcoming freshmen next year and we’ll have a couple of juniors returning. Our team and our future should be very bright.”
“A lot of people have said, ‘We don’t rebuild, we just reload,’” Warden said. “I hope we can keep everybody on track and it’s just a reload process.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @GaryFauber.