Last year at this time, the Washington High School wrestling program was almost the victim of a budget cut.
"The school board considered dropping the wrestling program, along with both soccer programs, to cut the athletic budget," Washington wrestling coach Josh Barrette recalled. "It was a scary time, but we were fortunate that they found a way to keep our programs."
A longtime WPIAL power, Washington's numbers had dwindled significantly the past few years, which put the program in jeopardy.
"We finished last season with nine kids and only seven participated in the section tournament," Barrette said.
A school board meeting took place last February, just before the individual postseason tournaments, and backers of the wrestling and soccer teams showed up to voice their support for the programs.
"We offered several ideas to cut costs," Barrette said. "One was to take school vans, instead of taking buses, to away matches whenever possible."
Barrette and his assistant coach, Adrian Turner, even offered to work for free.
"We offered to donate our salary back to the athletic department, but they said that wasn't an option," Barrette said. "The support we received at that school board meeting really helped.
"But what helped the most was the dedication shown by our underclassmen. They rallied the troops by telling all their friends about wrestling."
Washington had three seniors on last year's squad, which left Barrette with six experienced starters returning as the nucleus of this season's squad.
"We have 16 kids on the varsity this year, and only two are seniors," said Barrette, now in his fifth season as the Little Prexies head coach. "We also have 11 kids in our junior high program, and six or seven of them will move up to the varsity next season. That gives us a good number to work with next season.
"The key is to keep promoting the program among students in our junior high so we can build a good feeder system."
The students competing on the junior high team are doing well.
"We're winning the majority of our bouts at junior high matches," Barrette said. "We just need to keep increasing our numbers each year. It's the key to building a successful program."
Washington has fielded a lineup of 8 to 10 wrestlers for dual meets, which gives the Little Prexies a legitimate shot of winning. In fact, Washington has two wins in six dual meets. The Little Prexies fell one win short of a Class AA Section 2 playoff berth.
Junior George Rogers is the Little Prexies top wrestler. Rogers is a three-year starter who has 63 career wins. He earned a PIAA Southwest Region berth last season by placing seventh in the WPIAL at 138 pounds. This year, he has a 15-7 record at 145 pounds.
"George is just plugging along," Barrette said. "He's doing what he needs to do to win the close matches."
Barrette has used a few freshmen this year. The top ninth-grader is Kurt Atkins, who has a 12-9 mark at 120 pounds.
Others performing well for Washington are junior Shawn Hughes (8-8 at 160), senior Elijah Ellerman (8-8 at 170) and senior Elijah Jones (3-0 at 220).
"Shawn Hughes has recorded pins in three different weight classes -- 160, 170 and 182," Barrette said. "The same is true for Elijah Ellerman. He's pinned kids at 170, 182 and 195."