Madison freshman Van Skinner is the Madison Courier Wrestler of the Year. (Photo by Nina Campbell Photography)
Madison freshman Van Skinner is the Madison Courier Wrestler of the Year. (Photo by Nina Campbell Photography)
From the moment he could roll over as an infant, Van Skinner has been on a wrestling mat. Coming from a family where everybody is involved in the sport, Van has the kind of bond with wrestling that few may understand.

But that doesn’t mean it has been easy. Arguably, nobody in the area has struggled more to succeed at a sport than Van.

“I think what has helped him is how tough he has had it. It’s funny to say it, but he’s not a natural wrestler,” Madison wrestling coach Tyson Skinner, Van’s father, said. “He’s been around it forever, but it came tough for him. I think he wrestled for three years before he got a win. He was constantly getting the tar beat out of him. It really didn’t start clicking until he got to junior high.”

But click it did and once Van began winning matches, it was hard to stop him and that success has led the Madison High School freshman to being named this year’s Madison Courier Wrestler of the Year.

Van’s freshman year was one to behold. Coming off an undefeated eighth grade season, he didn’t miss a beat once he hit the high school mats. He set Madison freshman records for wins (47), pins (30), technical falls (3) and winning percentage (.904) and his 71 takedowns were the second-most for a freshman behind Michael Miller’s 88.

His 30 takedowns were also the third-most by any Madison wrestler in a single season and his 47 wins were the fourth-most. He won a regional championship and missed a berth in the state finals by just one win.

By anybody’s standard, it was an impressive year and even Van admits that he was surprised.

“I set some high goals and one of my goals was making it to state and even though I didn’t get there, just making it to semistate and winning that first match just showed where I am as a wrestler,” Van Skinner said. “I thought I was going to take a lot more losses. I’ve got to thank my practice partner Dalton Berry; we really just went at it. And our coaches really pushed our limits and helped me.”

“I expected him to do well because he’s been involved with the sport for so long, but being a freshman at an upper weight, I did not expect him to do as well as he did,” Tyson Skinner said. “I’m ecstatic that he did have the success he had and he’s set himself up to have great expectations in the future.”

Van’s road from going winless at the boys and girls club to dominate high school wrestlers was a long one. Tyson Skinner said that his son was a “chubby” little kid but once he got into junior high, he began hitting the weight room and transformed his body.

But it wasn’t just the physical skills that Van honed. Getting beat for three years made Van a smarter wrestler and by the time he reached junior high, he was looking at matches like a tactician, rather than mauler.

“He started to mature and started to concentrate not on what he couldn’t do, but what he could do,” Tyson Skinner said. “In junior high, he was a great leg rider but he wasn’t good on his feet and so he started working on that. He really started become a thinking-man wrestler. What really stands out to me in the big meets, these kids have really high GPAs and Van is one of these kids where struggling early on really wanted to make him push himself and hone his skills.”

That ability to step off the mat and analyze both victory and defeat made him successful this season. He suffered five losses and coach and wrestler both admit that most came from technical mistakes rather than simply getting beat.

But it was the way Van responded to a loss at the sectional that made him stand out. The No. 1 seed going in, Van suffered a semifinal upset loss and ended up finishing third. But rather than dwell on the loss he went back to work and ended up claiming the regional title.

“One of the losses I took at sectional I wasn’t wrestling like myself,” Van Skinner said. “After talking to my coaches, practicing and taking it light, regionals came and the energy was up and I was like, ‘Let’s just wrestle’ instead of worrying about winning or losing and that’s what I did.”

“You can handle that one of two ways: You can either pack it up and say you screwed up, the season is over and mope about what you did, or you can figure out what you did wrong and avenge it,” Tyson Skinner said. “His regional was the best he has wrestled all season. Everything was just clicking. You could tell that he focused on what he did wrong at sectionals and really came out with a game plan. He responded well and realized that he could lose and still come back and do well and wrestle with a chip on your shoulder.”

Coming off of a 47-win campaign and a trip to the semistate, Van knows that his expectations for next year will be high. But he’s also ready to step up to that challenge.

“I kind of look at, losing at semistate and not making it to state, kind of relieved me for the future because if I had qualified for state as a freshman, I would have all of this pressure about making it to state every other year,” Van said. “Making it to semistate as a freshman and not making it to state left some room for me to improve and really grow as a wrestler and not have so much pressure on my back.”

Van’s coach knows that advancing to that next level won’t be easy, but he’s also confident that his freshman son has what it takes.

“Three of the four that came out of our semistate placed in the top seven (at state). It was a tough semistate and he was right there competing,” Tyson Skinner said. “He is only a freshman, but coming off the season he had, he has high expectations. I hate to put that type of expectations on him, but he is the type of individual that I think can deal with that and stay humble and still be one of the harder working individuals in the weight room.”