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Cavalier wrestler wins historic title

When Justin Howell transferred from Phoebus to Lakeland before this school year, he already had some impressive titles from his high school wrestling career.

Primarily, Howell was a one-time runner-up and one-time champion in the Peninsula District.

Heading into the Eastern Region Tournament Friday and Saturday at Oscar Smith, Howell has a chance to go to a higher level in this, his senior season. He already has a piece of Lakeland sports history; one that’s his forever.

Last Saturday, Howell won the Southeastern District championship in the 215-pound division to become the first Cavalier wrestler to win a district title since Lakeland moved into Group AAA in 1996.

“I knew a little bit of the history, but I didn’t know I was the first actually,” Howell said.

“Coach has been telling me all year, if you work hard, you can get your name up on the wall,” Howell said, talking about a list of individual champions painted on the wall of Lakeland’s wrestling room.

Even with his accomplishments at Phoebus, this season’s been different. Howell credits head coach John Bostwick while Bostwick credits Howell.

“People said his conditioning wasn’t good and he had a hard time wrestling in close matches. When it comes to his conditioning, he’s worked extremely hard and he’s gotten over that hump,” Bostwick said.

Bostwick points to a match during Lakeland’s invitational tournament just before Christmas, in which Howell was trailing but came back to take the lead in points and finally score the win with a pin, as a big change in Howell’s confidence against tough competition.

“Truthfully, I’ve improved a lot because my work ethic has gotten better since coming to Lakeland,” Howell said.

“I couldn’t go the distance in matches, but now with all the conditioning work we’ve done, I feel a lot better in every match,” Howell said.

Howell is 34-1 this season with 31 pins. He won all three matches in the district tourney with pins.

“This week I’m practicing on improving my takedowns and not making any stupid mistakes. I have to make sure I think before I do something,” Howell said as he’s getting ready for the Eastern Region Tournament.

What Howell says he has to work on is one of the things his coach says is his major strength.

“Justin doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He doesn’t put himself in situations to get in trouble,” Bostwick said. It’s a mix of intelligence, experience and physical ability says Bostwick.

“He started wrestling in the eighth grade, so the longer a wrestler’s been working, the more mature he is, the more he knows about the clock during a match, or where he is as far as out of bounds or when to go for a move or let go of a move,” Bostwick said.

“Then there’s some of it that you just can’t teach. Some kids are just plain athletic and they get it,” Bostwick said.

There’s more behind Howell’s outstanding record this season.

“Before every match, even though I’ve been wrestling for a while, I still get nervous right before going onto the mat. Before that, I go over my game plan and, this season, I remember and I want to do well for one of my friends, Michael Lee,” Howell said.

Lee, a Lakeland senior and football teammate with Howell, was shot and killed at a party in Norfolk on Jan. 9.

“Every time before I step on the mat, my dad and I talk about it,” Howell said.

Howell didn’t know Lee or anyone else at Lakeland before starting football practices during the summer.

“You’re with them (teammates) almost every day so you build a really strong bond,” Howell said.

Howell will be at Lakeland for just one year, but he’s clearly deserving of the place he has in Cavalier wrestling history.