In some respects, Jeff Bowles was living a wrestler's dream.
Wrestling as an undersized heavyweight his sophomore year at Liberty, Bowles was slated to return to that class the following season. This time, the goal was for Bowles to add some weight so he would be a better fit.
At first, that didn't appear to be a problem.
"We worked all summer and all season on putting weight on him," Liberty head coach Nick Hylton said. "So he starts football and he weighs 260. Great. We were happy with that."
Then the unexpected happened.
"The end of football season rolls around and he comes in for wrestling season and he weighs 235," Hylton said.
Basically back to square one, Bowles went to immediate work on getting his weight back. That meant he got to eat whatever he wanted — even some down home cooking.
"His grandparents were bringing him three-course meals for lunch," Hylton said. "He was eating school lunch. He was drinking Mass Gainer shakes. And he's doing all this just to maintain the 235.
"He's not putting any weight on."
It was starting to look like another season at heavyweight for Bowles, who qualified for the state tournament as a sophomore — his first as a wrestler. Unfortunately, returning 220-pounder Devin Vance was lost for the season due to injury.
That opened up a more reasonable spot for Bowles.
"I was just pounding food, trying to get to a comfortable weight," he said. "I just found out it wasn't working for me, so we thought it would be better to cut down to 220 and see where we could go from there."
"I say to Jeff, 'What do you think about running down to 220?'" Hylton said. "He said, 'Let's do it.'
"He actually understood what some of these other kids were feeling like. He could eat on the way to a match the year before. This time it was role reversal."
Still, he took it and ran with it.
"It was difficult, but once I got there, maintaining it was no problem," Bowles said. "The hard part was getting to the weight I needed to be at."
It looks like he has arrived. After a runner-up finish in the Class AA-A Region 3 meet last season, Bowles went to Huntington and placed fourth at the state tournament at 220.
Now a senior, Bowles says it's all about progression.
"Being a third-year wrestler, I set high goals for myself," Bowles said. "When I first started out, I just wanted to qualify for states. I accomplished my goal, so I said, 'OK. I'll push a little higher. I want to place my second year.' I dedicated myself, worked all offseason and in season and I placed fourth in the state tournament second year.
"This year I set high goals for myself again. I would like to win the state tournament. I've just been working, working, working all offseason and in season, after practice, just whenever I can."
Hylton said work ethic defines Bowles, including in the mat room. He takes advantage of the opportunity to work with Hylton, a two-time undefeated state champion for the Raiders in 2007 and 2008.
"I roll with all my kids, every day. So he has the opportunity to roll with me, or roll with somebody else," Hylton said. "A lot of the kids will avoid wrestling with me sometimes, because I don't cut them any slack. I'm hard on them. He'll be the first one to grab me.
"There'll be days where I beat on him some and he shakes his head, like, 'Man, where did this come from?' And then there are days he'll do something wrong and I'll stop him and tell him, 'This is what you've got to do,' and he corrects himself. I think that's really where he has learned so much and gotten better in a short amount of time."
Placing in the state tournament did a lot for Bowles' mindset.
"I know lots of people, that's a big goal," he said. "A lot of people don't make states that's been wrestling since they were kids, so to place fourth in the state after only wrestling two years — pretty big confidence booster."
Confidence is something Bowles doesn't lack — he's 13-3 on the season — but he has to avoid psyching himself out.
"There's some days he looks really great for some matches, and then in other matches it's like, who is this kid?," Hylton said. "We've sat and talked a lot about that and I think we've come to the conclusion that he's putting a lot of pressure on himself to be real successful this year. He's focusing more on winning and losing rather than just wrestling. He's starting to come out of that. Each week he's looking better. He'll be ready when the state tournament hits."
"I feel like I've done pretty good," Bowles said. "Just need to get a little more confident in myself, because I know I have the ability to do it. I just have to have the right mindset."