On first inspection, John Cook looks more like the teenager who tears tickets at the local movie theater than a menacing high school wrestler.
That, however, doesn’t bother the 5-foot-6, 146-pound Mount de Sales standout. Those who’ve grappled with him -- or watched him from across the mat -- know better.
No opponent has taken Cook down or put him on his back this season. In fact, the only points scored against the senior have been earned by an opponent escaping his hold. That didn’t change Friday, when the defending state champion needed merely 30 seconds to earn a berth in the 145-pound class semifinals of the GISA individual state meet being held at Tattnall Square.
Bulloch leads the competition, which ends Saturday, with 120 points after the opening round. Westfield is second with 97 points, followed closely by the Cavaliers in third with 94 points. Tattnall Square is ninth, while Stratford is 10th.
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Windsor is 16th.
“A lot of kids that wrestle come in with a certain amount of cockiness,” Mount de Sales wrestling head coach Carsten Franklin said. “It’s an individual sport. It’s all about ‘you’ on that mat.
“Being humble is tough. John’s humbleness has always impressed me.”
Cook’s headgear still fits in spite of his staggering résumé. His lone defeat during the past two high school seasons was a one-point loss to Westfield’s Jared Parnell.
Last year, he received U.S. Future Olympian team recognition for being ranked among the top 25 high school wrestlers in the country. Cook ascended to No. 7 before having to miss the 2011 Fargo (N.D.) National Championships last July because of knee surgery. He ended the season ranked No. 14.
Cook says he fell in love with the sport after attending a wrestling camp at St. Joseph’s in the sixth grade. As a sophomore, he lost in the state finals and decided to train extensively year-round with USA Wrestling. He returned for his junior season with a vengeance.
Cook, who played halfback and linebacker for the Cavaliers’ football team, decided not to play during his senior season to concentrate solely on wrestling. His dedication to the craft has paid off. Franklin said there have been opponents who gained or lost weight just to escape his weight class and avoid having to face him.
“Intimidation is revealed through your eyes,” said Cook, whose hands and voice were still trembling from the endorphin explosion 10 minutes after his briefest match of his season. “I can sometimes tell if a person is confident or not. I actually like when people are confident. It means that I’m going to have a better time out there, trying to outstrategize them.”
What dictates whether Cook tries to assert his brains or his brawn? Mostly his opponent’s weight, he said.
“If (my opponent) is moving back from the outset, it tells me I can get into him offensively and be aggressive,” Cook said.
Wrestling is a combat sport where competitors try to gain control over their opponent through the use of throws, locks and clinching techniques. The ultimate goal is to pin the opponent’s shoulders to the mat. Otherwise, the match continues until the end of three two-minute periods where a winner is decided by the amount of technical points scored.
Wrestlers are given a three-pound allowance for the state meet, allowing Cook to wrestle at 145.
“I love the individuality of the sport,” says Cook, who plans to wrestle at Georgia at the club level. “There’s nothing out there to help you. You’re all by yourself. It’s physical, but it’s also strategic.
“Most people think you go out there and just try to outmuscle the person. But you have to think about what the other person is trying to do and counter it. It’s very chess-like.”
Franklin said he often pairs his younger wrestlers with Cook in practice because they need mat time with a wrestler who will capitalize on their mistakes every time.
“John has a presence on the mat unlike anybody,” Franklin said. “I’ve had other coaches tell me they’ve never seen anyone that controls his body and knows what to do in every situation like he does.
“As coaches, we are constantly yelling instructions from the sidelines. With him, I’ve never said a word. He’s going to feel what the other person is trying to do. He’s going to see it. It’s just something that comes naturally to him.”
Cook’s most arduous competition may come in the Cavaliers’ own practices. Franklin has seniors Tripp Gregory (170 pounds), Blaze Hyder (138), Damon Dunwoody (132) and Cook wrestle each other, calling it “the gauntlet.”
All four wrestlers, who won their respective matches Friday, borrow moves from each other during the grueling sessions.
“Like my dad says, ‘Iron sharpens iron,’ ” Cook said.