By Jim O'Hara
ROME -- Josh Henson has had some time to reflect on what was certainly the most challenging season he has had as a head wrestling coach.
The man who was chosen to head up Shorter University first mat program four years ago knew from the start that this season would be different, with the Hawks finding themselves in the second of a three-year transition period toward becoming an NCAA Division II member, one that also excludes his wrestlers from competing in postseason competition through 2014.
That one fact alone, the lack of having life after the regular season, was a bitter pill to swallow for Henson and the Hawks, who know all too well that the ultimate goal for college wrestlers is the postseason where – after using all the practices and matches as a preparation tool leading up to the end of the season – reap their rewards.
Henson, however, always finds his reflections revert to positive thoughts, all which revolve around one common thread – the Hawks themselves.
"The transition year was tough for everyone, but the good thing was we still came out of it with a lot of positives," Henson said about Shorter's first season as a Division II team and one that despite the lack of a postseason produced some record-setting highlights.
"Postseason is the ultimate yardstick for wrestlers as far as telling you how you have trained and how far you have improved," he said. "But whether you're in the postseason or not, you still want to practice what you would normally do."
"It's tough to keep that intensity you need," the coach pointed out. "It's a normal season halfway through it, but then instead of preparing for the postseason it becomes like 'Groundhog Day' – it just repeats itself."
"You have to keep everyone focused on smaller goals."
Those goals were set and realized, the biggest one accomplished when the Hawks established themselves as the Peach State's first-ever champions when they won the inaugural Georgia Intercollegiate Championships at Life University in Marietta in January, besting Life, Brewton-Parker College, Darton College and Truett-McConnell College.
"You always want to be the top team in the state and if you do it during the kind of transition year we had, that's a positive sign," Henson said about the state title, one that saw two Hawks win individual crowns – DeMarcus Thomas took the title in the 133-pound class and Jared Rector won at 174.
"This year, that championship was our postseason."
That accomplishment wasn't the only one secured as a pair of program records was set, with sophomore Gabriel Bird recording a team-best 29 wins in the season and freshman T.J. Duncan setting a new mark for pins in a season with 14 falls.
The two Hawks also led the Shorter charge at the other event the Hawks could compete in during the regular season, the National Collegiate Open in Richmond, Va., where Bird took first place at 149, Rector was a finalist at 174, junior Joe Hinchman reached the finals at 184, and Duncan captured a third place at 157.
Add to that the improvements seen throughout the team, including the season posted by junior Brandon Dyer who reeled off 17 wins, and one can see why Henson is so pleased with what the Hawks did this year and how the entire team is focused on the future.
The future – wrestling in the NCAA Division II postseason arrive in 2015 after one more transitional year – was the prime reason five veteran Hawks were red-shirted this season, with Andrew Ewers, Wally Figaro, Nathan Galloway, Dwann Hall and Gregory Lane only competing in an unattached basis.
Yet what prompts Henson to embrace just how determined and dedicated his team is during their proverbial time in postseason limbo, are the Hawks who will make up Shorter's first class of seniors next year: Dyer, Galloway, Jamari Davis, Hinchman, John Hoyt, Jesse Jones, Joshua Lansdell, Ryan Lauderbaugh, Jonathan Rodriguez and Chris Rowland.
"They are the ones who have pushed this program through and have made it what it is," Henson said as he looks ahead to Shorter's fourth year as a program. "These guys have been the constant for us."
"This is not going to last forever; we'll get through it."
Henson and the Hawks are already turning their attention to their final transitional year, the team adhering to an off-season work ethic to get even better and the coach looking to shore up the solid foundation by recruiting more building blocks.
"It's always important to bring in wrestlers to advance the program," said Henson. "It's important for us to bring in guys who focus on intensity and can compete on the Division II level."
And join a squad that already has those traits and then some.
"They did a great job this year," Henson said the Hawks. "To go through a college wrestling season without a postseason is unique. I'm proud of how they did."