By Drew Costley
George Mason High School’s winter sports season officially kicks off the first week of December with season openers for all of the Mustangs’ varsity sports teams. Many Mustang coaches are hoping to build on the success of past seasons, and one team will attempt to chart a new course without one of George Mason’s all-time great athletes.
The Mustangs slumped down to 7-15 last season after a run to the state finals the season before, but Head Coach Chris Capannola said he thinks the program as a whole is trending back towards success.
“We struggled last year, but the silver lining in those type seasons is the young kids get a lot of minutes, and they didn’t like all the losing, which is the most important part,” Capannola said. “The JV was very good last year, and a lot of those kids are playing varsity now.”
The Mustangs have sustained two consecutive years of talent loss due to players graduating. The program has graduated 15 players over the last two seasons, all of whom played on the team during their run to the district, regional, and state finals in 2012. With all of those players gone, Capannola said he isn’t sure who is going to step up to take a leadership role on the team in the coming season.
“With only two seniors, it will be interesting to see who emerges as our leader,” Capannola said. “With less than 10 points per game returning for us, who will step up and fill that void? The faster our leader emerges, the quicker we can follow him.”
Capannola mentioned a pair of juniors, guard Daniel Donovan and forward George DeMars, as players who could fill the leadership void on the team.
Two of the Mustangs’ other veteran players are out with injuries. Senior guard Wesley Coupard is out after suffering a concussion in a fall league game and junior guard Sam Selby is out for an extended period of time after suffering an elbow injury during the football season.
Sophomore Eliot Mercado is another player from last season who could be a vital part of the team this season, according to Capannola.
“Eliot is my point guard,” Capannola said. “He really embraced the role last year as a freshman, and I have been hard on him this season because he can be a really special player.”
Capannola said he expects four other sophomores, three of whom played on the junior varsity team in 2012, and a sophomore who transferred in this year – center Douglass Bossart, forward Robert Tartt, guard D’Montae Noble, and Josh Allen – to make an immediate impact at the varsity level this season.
The Mustangs start their season Dec. 5 at Manassas Park.
Last season the Mustangs were bounced out of the state tournament by Floyd County High School in the semifinal round. That game was also the last for forward Stephanie Cheney, the Mustangs’ best player for several seasons, one who averaged 24 points and 11 rebounds for the team. Despite those big losses, head coach LaBryan Thomas expects the team to be even more competitive this season.
“Any time you lose a player of Stephanie’s caliber, you’re going to be hurting,” Thomas said. “But we have a nucleus of young kids that are going to help the program this year.”
Several players from the Mustangs’ junior varsity squad that went undefeated last season are moving up to the varsity level. Among them are freshman guards Sarah Lubnow and Coral Gillette and freshman forward Maddie Cherry.
The Mustangs returned three other players who were key to their run to the state semifinals last season and had several years of experience at the varsity level between them. Junior forward Katie Goodwin, who was the Mustangs’ second leading scorer last season, and senior guards Jaya Chavern and Julianna Rollo were all part of the Mustangs’ state championship team in 2012. Along with Cheney, the Mustangs are not returning junior Ava Roth, who isn’t playing this season in order to play soccer.
According to Thomas, the Mustangs’ major strength this season is a deep bench.
“Last year we were only 7 or 8 deep. This year we are 12-deep,” Thomas said. “To me, this is a better team this year.”
The Mustangs played scrimmages this week against Tuscarora High School, Pope John Paul the Great High School, and Langley High School. Thomas said he and the coaching staff “saw great stuff” from the team in those scrimmages.
“The team is physical. They love to run, we get up and down the floor, and we run pressing defense just like we always have,” Thomas said. “Our style hasn’t changed. I think we’re going to be better at this year. … We’re quicker, we’re better, and we’re going to put pressure on folks this season.”
The Mustangs start their season at Clarke County High School on Dec. 4.
Swim and Dive
The varsity swim and dive team is used to being amongst the most competitive teams from across the state in division A and the more competitive division AA, according to Head Coach Jon-Michael Lemon. But due to the realignment of the Virginia High School League, the Mustangs will have to adjust to competing against teams from schools closer to the size of George Mason.
“In previous seasons, we were often the highest scoring A team in a state meet usually dominated by much larger AA schools,” Lemon said. “We are excited to see how this season turns out.”
The Mustangs only lost four team members from their 2012-2013 team, which went undefeated in the regular season. These losses include team captains Sarah Devlin and Joseph Rund and Lucas Cherry, one of the programs’ leading swimmers.
Despite these losses, several of the teams’ finalists in the state championship meet are returning to the team. Those returning Mustangs include seniors Nick Roberson and Austin Gogal, juniors Jared Britton and Beth Cashin, and sophomores Julianne Kelly, Francesca King, Erin McFall, and Miller Surette.
“These veterans are very versatile in their strengths and bring a lot of leadership, experience and confidence to our team,” Lemon said.
The fact that the program’s lowest record in several years was a 4-3 record in the 2009-10 is also a boost to the confidence of the team.
“We have been able to maintain a high level of success due to a hard-working group of young men and women who push themselves and each other to continue to improve and to pursue their goals,” Lemon said.
The Mustangs’ first meet is Dec. 7 against Central High School at Manassas Park Community Center.
Head Coach Bryan Harris said that the successes from last season – wrestlers placing in the top five in the regional tournament, one wrestler nearly medaling in the state tournament – is not what’s motivating his team this season. He said the disappointments from last year, and not wanting to repeat those mistakes, is what’s motivating the team.
“That’s what is really being carried into this season, a room full of wrestlers who don’t want this season to end like last year’s and that’s what drives them in the practice room each day,” Harris said.
The Mustangs lost three starters from last season’s squad. Tim Donis, who wrestled in the 182-pound weight class, graduated after the last season. Seniors Connor Rhodes and Jake Acosta, who wrestle in the 195- and 285-pound weight classes respectively, both suffered injuries during the football season that will keep them on the sidelines all season.
“While we haven’t been able to find anyone their size to replace them, I’ve got high expectations for our upper middle weights throughout the season,” Harris said.
Harris has particularly high expectations for three of the wrestlers in that range of weight classes, seniors Grant Hagler and Jack Stricker and sophomore Hunter Sulc. Hagler and Sulc both wrestled for the Mustangs in the state tournament last season.
According to Harris, planning to accommodate the range of experience levels on the team is one of the biggest challenges going into this season. The Mustangs have five seniors – Hagler, Stricker, Max Aifer, Joe Warren, and Sarah Gompper – who Harris said have made up the core of the team for the past three seasons. And then there are five freshmen – Andrew Coulson, Claire Boyle, Lee Hagler, Eddie Gallo and Concepcion Pereira – including two who have no prior wrestling experience.
“While we always have a wide range of experience on the team,” Harris said, “I feel like it’s more pronounced this season and it makes practice planning a real challenge.”
The Mustangs start this season on Dec. 3 at The Potomac School and then wrestle in their first tournament Dec. 6 at Fairfax High School.