A Season In Memory
Knights Honor Fellow Wrestler
Posted: December 4, 2012
BRIDGEWATER – In the confines of Turner Ashby High School’s wrestling room, Jackson Reel is still very much alive in spirit.
His wrestling shoes are on the feet of junior Marty Ritchie. Some of his headgear is still protecting fellow Knights, including promising freshman Dalton Farley. T-shirts, hats and even Reel’s lucky socks were also entrusted to teammates.
“Different stuff that guys can wear to pay tribute to him,” TA wrestling coach Marshall Smiley said.
Reel’s mother, Vonda Johnston, said she gave her son’s “most important” wrestling possession – a custom-designed singlet that was his 16th birthday gift – to Luke Kiser, TA’s defending 145-pound state champion who was among his closest friends. Appropriately, the senior received the singlet on his 18th birthday and TA’s first in-season wrestling practice on Nov. 5.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better gift,” Kiser said.
Jackson Reel, a 16-year-old junior, died in a tragic single-car accident in Rockingham County on Oct. 30. Cyndal Ward, 17, also a TA student, lost control of the car while turning on Coopers Mountain Road and struck a tree, authorities said. Reel died at the scene, and Ward died two days later from injuries sustained in the crash.
Kiser said he visited the crash site every day after school for a while, putting a TA wrestling shirt on the tree that took Reel’s life.
“It’s within five feet [of the back road],” Kiser recalled of the tree. “Probably too close.”
The Knights, who are looking to win their 15th straight district title, have dedicated their season to Reel – who remains an example to Smiley’s youngest group for his hard work and dedication on the mat.
“It was definitely hard. I knew it was going to be hard,” Smiley said in November. “It’s hard every time you walk into that room. A guy that I spent so much time with, a guy that wrestled 10 months out of the year – you walk into that room expecting to see his face.”
But Smiley said for him and the wrestlers, getting back in the wrestling room has been the best medicine – and “what I think Jackson would want us to do.”
“Paying tribute,” Smiley said, “and making this season for him.”
Reel placed seventh last year at the Group AA state meet as a sophomore, qualifying for the tournament by fighting through the consolation round after an 0-1 start at the Region III meet. He also made the trip to states his freshman year as an alternate.
“We were very proud of him for that. He was upset with himself for not having [an official] spot,” Johnston recalled.
That’s how Reel was. And that’s how the Knights want to be.
Besides Reel’s family, TA’s wrestling team might have been the most affected by the loss.
“I think that it’s a very grueling sport and that when you participate in something that difficult together, you’re bonded together in a way that’s just different than a normal kind of friendship,” Johnston said. “The amount of effort they put in to that sport makes them very close.”
Defending the Valley District title won’t be easy for TA, which had to fend off Fort Defiance and Waynesboro in the final round last season. Led by Kiser and senior Josh Powers, the Knights have only three other seniors – Hunter Morton, who did not start last year, and first-year TA wrestlers Brett Keslowski and Kevin Padilla – with about 20 younger wrestlers.
The team was reminded of Reel’s commitment to the team by Smiley.
“The week after the accident happened, he came in school and we had a wrestling meeting,” Powers said. “He definitely talked about how Jackson was a hard worker, never gave up and set his mind to place high in the states and how he was going to do anything possible to do it.”
“… It kind of rubbed off on some of the freshmen last year,” Powers added of Jackson’s work ethic. “I think they’re going to take his path to work hard and never give up.”
The Knights opened their season Saturday at Waynesboro with an even bigger target on their backs. TA placed second, losing to host Waynesboro in an eight-team dual tournament 33-36 in the finals.
“We graduated a lot of seniors,” Smiley said of a talented group that included regional champions Mitch Thomas (120) and Jacob Michael (113), as well as state qualifiers Jake Liskey and Jared Bell. “I’m sure this is the year district teams thought they could knock us off. … The reality is, Jackson was a big part of our lineup… which is going to be full of a lot of [new] faces.”
The goal, Smiley said, remains the same. But he made it clear that if TA is going to carry on its tradition of district dominance, the Knights have work to do.
“I’m not changing or conceding anything just because we have a young group,” Smiley said. “How do you go through 14 years and not have a young group? We’ve won with young groups.”
The blue chip is Kiser, who was Region III’s Most Outstanding Wrestler last season. Though weight classes have not been determined yet for the upcoming season, Kiser went 3-2 in a major tournament at Greensboro, N.C. in October among a field of 128 wrestlers at 152 pounds.
Kiser qualified for the Super 32 Wrestling Tournament in early September, competing for the last time with Reel – his training partner – at Skyline High School.
In his senior campaign, Kiser said he has “tunnel vision.” He wants to win another state title. He wants to repeat. But ultimately, he wants to put his soul into this season for Reel.
“He was always driving forward, working hard, and I think a lot of people realize that’s what they need to do, too, to kind of honor him,” Kiser said during the preseason in mid-November. “He lived his life to do the best he could in everything he did. I know a lot of us are trying to live our life in the way he did to honor him. We just work as hard as we can every day to make him proud.”