POQUOSON — Eric Decker keeps the clipping of the 2012-13 Bay Rivers District wrestling preview close by for motivation. The article named four-time defending champion New Kent High as the favorite, highlighted four potential contenders and gave Poquoson this reference in passing:
Traditional power Poquoson graduated two state champions and looks to rebuild under a new coach, Eric Decker, a former Virginia Tech and Old Dominion standout.
Decker, hired at Poquoson in late September, disagreed with the premise of the piece despite returning nary a star from a team that finished a distant fourth in last year's district tournament. So much so that when the Islanders earned their first win over a team picked ahead of them, York, he offered this startling observation:
"I'm not ready yet to swallow the pill that we can't beat New Kent," he said, ignoring the Trojans' consecutive district dual-match victories streak that peaked at 48 before their meeting. "I think we've got something for them."
It turns out Decker, who loves motivational quotes with a Tony Robbins-like fervor, was preaching the same thing to his wrestlers. Months before the Islanders culminated a 9-0 district championship season with a thrilling 35-33 upset of New Kent — in front of perhaps the largest wrestling crowd in Poquoson's gym in 14 years — he was telling his wrestlers they'd be district champs.
At first they wondered just who they were locked up with in the program's fabled wrestling room each afternoon.
"I thought he was crazy," Islanders 145-pounder Russ Porter said.
"A lot of us thought the same thing, like there was no way we could do that," said 152-pounder Ross Graham. "Then we saw that our (comparative) scores were close to (New Kent's) and thought that we could do it."
Porter added, "After practicing with the team for a couple of months in the room, I believed we could beat them. Coach Decker brings an aggressiveness and intensity that helps a lot."
Decker said his style is influenced by the coaches he wrestled for in college. He combines the business-like approach of Kevin Dresser at Virginia Tech, where he was an NCAA qualifier as a true freshman, and the personal touch of Steve Martin at Old Dominion, where he also qualified for the NCAAs.
"His practices are fast paced," said Ross Graham, a freshman whose father Casey Graham was a three-time individual state champion at Poquoson. "He wants to get things done in an hour or hour-and-a-half and be done with it.
"He doesn't want to be in there with things dragging."
Decker has kept practices very fundamental this year. He loves teaching technique, and developed a 30-page guide with eight levels to shoot for, but won't ask a wrestler to do more than he's proved he can handle.
Those practices are studies in non-stop motion, and following many he'll pull aside a wrestler and show him a motivational quote. One of Decker's favorites is, "We are what we repeatedly do."
"If we come in here and continuously bust our butts, we're going to be good," Decker said. "Russ Porter said he didn't realize until lately that he could be a state finalist.
"I said, 'Really? You beat the No. 2-ranked guy in the state and lost to the No. 1 guy by two points because you didn't wrestle until the third period.'
"Our job is to make them realize that goals are attainable."
A number of wrestlers of whom little was expected have thrived this season: Brandon Steffens (160 pounds), Dakoda Farrington (170) and Riley Howell (195). Others — Mitch Long (113), Keelan Moore (120), Trevor Dunagan (132) and Trent Graham (182) — have been consistently productive. At least four — Porter, Hunter Wright (106), Kyle Poultney (126) and Ross Graham — are poised to star in postseason tournaments.
Together they produced one of the more memorable moments in recent Poquoson wrestling history with the upset of New Kent. That's saying something for a Poquoson program with nine team state titles and more than 70 state individual gold medals.
But the district title is just a launching point for Decker, who made his sentiments known by posting a motivational saying on the wrestling room wall: "If we could be satisfied with anything, we should have been satisfied long ago."
"We've done more than a lot of people thought we could ever do, and at the same time we're not done yet," he said. "That we were completely overlooked and came out of left field, is a storybook season for us.
"It's a great thing to build on for the young kids in the program."
So what is Poquoson building toward? Here, too, Decker's optimism is boundless.
"This town is a wrestling town," he said. "That said, I really and truly believe we can win a state championship next year, and I'm two years away from having my best team.
"I might seem overzealous sometimes, but that's because I'm positive, optimistic and I believe in this team."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times