Scott Cook has his best Waccamaw wrestling team in its brief, five-year history.
Seven Warriors are in the top six in the Class AA/A individual rankings and the team is an all-time best No. 6 in the state. It is positioning itself for its first postseason team victory after falling in the first round each of the last four years. There are talks of developing a feeder youth program to accompany the middle-school team.
In the center of all the success and all the growth is one of the most accomplished wrestlers this area has seen in the past decade. John Van Slooten already has two individual state titles and is an overwhelming favorite to win a third this season.
But winning has taken a back seat to something greater.
“Sportsmanship has become more important to me with age,” Van Slooten said. “That’s what college scouts are looking for, and it’s all about representing the program. I’ve done a lot to work on it. I think I’ve improved a lot since last year and the year before.”
Van Slooten moved to Pawleys Island and transferred to Waccamaw from St. James after last year. It was then that he was a perfect 48-0, won the Class AAA 145-pound state individual title, helped the Sharks to the Lower State team finals. According to the South Carolina High School League record book, his win tally from last year is third in state history for a single season. Combined with more than 40 victories as a freshmen, and he’s well on his way to challenging for a top-five career mark.
For all the pins and points he racked up, however, Van Slooten admitted his conduct in the past left something to be desired. He said he received plenty of “constructive criticism” from coaches and teammates about it.
In other words, they wanted to help him become the type of athlete that reflected his dominating record.
“He is obviously the best wrestler I’ve ever coached,” Cook said. “He brings a wealth of knowledge and a wealth of talent to our program. His weakness is leadership. He’s had some on-the-mat issues as far as sportsmanship and responsibility.
“He was a handful, by his own admission. He has really made that turn.”
Some of that had to do with Cook sitting Van Slooten down for the team’s first match of the season. Van Slooten was raring to go with his new team. Instead, he was forced to watch.
That won’t be the case Thursday night. Van Slooten will put his 21-0 record on the line when he and his teammates head to North Myrtle Beach for the Warriors matches against the Chiefs and Socastee.
Like Waccamaw, North Myrtle Beach and Socastee are also among the state’s best. The Warriors are dealing with the depth issues, so repeat victories over those schools is no guarantee. What Cook is hoping for, though, is the consistent escalation he’s strived for and, for the most part, received.
“I think it’s been slow but steady,” he said. “It’s funny how the numbers work out. Our first year, we had a losing record and nobody qualified for state. The second year, we had one kid qualify. The next year, we had three. Last year, we had four. This year we have a chance to have five or six.”
The statewide individual rankings that were released Wednesday showed others believe that, too.
Senior 285-pounder Hunter Brininger enters Thursday night’s matches at 26-0 and No. 3 in the state. Arman Singh (126 pounds) and Tyler Pettit (132) are also No. 3. Connor Summer (138) and Travis Pierce (220) are No. 4 in their respective weight divisions. Junior Parker Williams is sixth at 160 pounds.
And then there’s Van Slooten.
The junior is No. 1 in the state and has shown no signs of letting up any time soon. Only difference now is his approach.
“Wrestling is my life. It’s always been my life,” Van Slooten said. “It’s what I do when times are tough. It’s what keeps me sane sometimes.
“I’ve worked my whole life to be a good wrestler. But I can’t let it go to my head.”