POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — Some of them are actual brothers, including one that is a brother-in-law.
More than half of them are also former Big Black grapplers of accomplishment.
But when it comes to wrestling at Point Pleasant, they are all brothers-in-arms.
After capturing the program’s fifth Class AA-A state championship in 11 years, the varsity coaching staff at Point Pleasant sat down and discussed the journey of inheriting a high-caliber program and molding it into what it has become today.
First, there are the coaches — starting with head coach John Bonecutter. Bonecutter and his brother, David, have been on the varsity staff since the 2010 campaign — Point’s first season winning a state title as a team. Assistant Jed Ott has also been with the Big Blacks over that entire span.
Former PPHS standout James Casto — the program’s first multi-state title winning grappler in 2005 and 2006 — joined the gang during the 2013 campaign, while George Smith moved his family to the area in 2003 and served primarily as a youth league and junior high coach in the system until moving up to the varsity ranks over the past handful of seasons.
All are familiar with one another in regards to the sport, and the quintet share a special bond in trying to get the most out of their wrestlers on a year-in, year-out basis.
It is their collective approach, however, that really makes the biggest difference in what the Big Blacks have accomplished as a program for the better part of the past decade. Through both good times and bad, these five men have been there to lead the way.
“I’m fortunate to have really good coaches on the staff. Not my staff, just the staff,” John Bonecutter said with the straightest of faces. “All of these guys would make for very good head coaches with any program. We all know what to do in regards to practices and training, and we respect one another’s opinions. We all work really well together and that’s probably the biggest reason we’ve had the successes that we’ve had. We trust one another as equals.”
Ott — who was a 2-time state placer at North Marion High School before moving on to wrestle at the collegiate level — was hired as a physical education teacher in the summer of 2007 and joined John as an assistant coach with the junior high program for the 2008 campaign.
Even then, Ott noted that John Bonecutter was destined to be a good head coach … someone that could take things at PPHS to another level.
“Everything we do here is as a group, and it’s always been that way with John. It’s all of us making this happen, but the best thing about a leader is that the person in charge brought in some knowledgeable people around him,” Ott said. “It’s a family atmosphere, and John runs a great household.”
It was during their 2-year stint at the junior high ranks that the future of PPHS wrestling started to take shape.
“Jack Cullen, my head coach and still the head coach at Point at the time, really laid the foundation for everything here. That needs to be mentioned before anything else. He asked me to coach junior high in 2008 and Jed had just taken a job at the school,” John Bonecutter said. “I called Jed and asked if he was interested in coaching. It started there in junior high for two years, plus we’d always go watch the state tournament and watch what other successful programs were doing. We started taking notes and said if we were ever high school coaches, this is what we wanted to do. Basically, we were up there stealing ideas.”
The younger Bonecutter, David, still holds the PPHS record for most pinfall wins in a season, and he also played a big role — along with Jed and his brother — in getting the Big Blacks to the first of three consecutive championships in 2010 … John’s first year as head coach.
David is married to James Casto’s sister, which left him trying to add his brother-in-law to the staff unsuccessfully for a few years before Casto agreed to join up in 2013 … the same time the Big Blacks were making the leap to the triple-A level.
Smith, at that same time, was still working hard with the junior high and youth programs, but the current 5-man staff was finally assembled at that point.
David noted that everybody in the group knew that they could, and would, work well together … regardless of personal backgrounds.
“In looking back, we’ve been together for a long time and the like-mindedness has gone a long way,” David Bonecutter said. “The stars aligned and it’s just worked out perfectly. Jed’s from North Marion and George graduated from Amherst (OH), but all five of us are Point Pleasant guys. We all love the sport and we’re all dedicated to the program.”
It was during that 4-year run in Class AAA that the staff found out what it was really made of, especially after dominating the double-A field that past three years. It didn’t end up killing them, and they all admit that they — and the program — are stronger now because of it.
“The move to triple-A was tough because it the perfect storm of bad timing. We had just graduated some really good wrestlers from the year before and we had a stupid incident that first year that led to us dismissing a few kids from the team,” John Bonecutter said. “We still earned our highest finish ever at triple-A, but it was tough to have to make that decision. In the long run, it was the right call … and I think the program is in a better position now because the tough choices we made that year.
“As a staff, it was frustrating … but sometimes you have to realign your goals. We didn’t have the depth or the firepower to compete with Huntington and Parkersburg South at that time, so the goal became seeing how many podium finishers and state champions we could produce.”
The Big Blacks were never higher than sixth place in any of their four Class AAA tournament from 2013 through 2016, but the program did land four straight top-10 finishes while quadrupling its triple-A champions list from one to four.
Through those tough times, Casto noted that the coaches decided it was time to up the ante — all in the name of improving the program.
“The move to triple-A was right around the same time we started our offseason conditioning program. We realized if we were staying at the triple-A level, things had to change for us,” Casto said. “Honestly, that’s when we laid the foundation for what we have now. It was a shell-shock, moving up to triple-A, but it was also a blessing in disguise. It showed us how much farther we could take this thing.”
Also during those tougher postseason runs, the youth and junior high programs at Point Pleasant started developing some really promising wrestlers that marked what has been the next run of championship trophies.
Smith — who is mostly responsible for seven podium placements between his sons George Jr. and Christopher the past five years — noted that starting kids out young, the right way, has been a huge benefit to the varsity program’s growth.
“I really believe the success of our varsity program starts with our youth program. It’s been around for many, many years and we’ve implemented a club with it as well. Essentially, we have two groups feeding the junior high program and eventually the varsity program,” Smith said. “It builds an interest in the sport and in the community. We teach them the right way to do things on the mat so that when they get to the junior high and varsity levels, it’s more about fine-tuning and less about teaching. It’s made a big difference.”
Being the oldest coach, as well as an ‘outsider’ that wrestled in high school, Smith mentions that he was blown away by how much support the wrestling program received from the community as he was moving his family into town.
As he also pointed out, that kind of support has never come close to dropping off in the years since.
“When I got here back in 2003, you could see how the community exploded with wrestling. Champions and repeat champions were being produced and the teams were getting better and better,” Smith said. “We had a changing of the guard, so to speak, and state titles started coming in. Then we built the wrestling room, which has been a big help to what we are doing.
“More than anything though, we had some of the best families a coaching staff could want. They made sure everything that was needed for the kids was here, including some families whose kids had already graduated. As an outsider coming in, I was blown away by the bond and the pride in the program. I still am to this day, but that’s why this program is special … it’s the people.”
The younger Bonecutter admits that he — like the other coaches — don’t get a lot of time to reflect on their accomplishments because of, say, getting ready for nationals or other offseason tournaments.
As a former PPHS grappler, however, he can’t help but feel that the kids are experiencing something that will always be with them — long after their days as members of the Big Blacks wrestling program has ended.
“When I briefly look back on what we’ve accomplished this year and over the past 11 years, it’s just kind of overwhelming. The records, the titles, the tournaments and the competition we’ve faced, it’s truly remarkable how far we’ve come as a program,” David Bonecutter said. “I remember the things we did in high school under Coach Cullen, and how proud I still am of those things to this day … and we weren’t doing anything like we are now. I think we all take a pride in what’s happened for this program over the last decade, and it’s something we hope to continue in the years ahead.”
When asked if anybody saw what was coming over the last 11 years, Ott — a finalist for assistant coach of the year in West Virginia — came up with the quickest answer of anyone in the room … and probably the most accurate one too.
“When we started, we just wanted to win one. Once we did that, we wanted to win another one. We’re still kind of stuck in that mindset,” Ott said. “There are so many nuances and everybody has a role in this program, regardless of what level it is. It’s a great big machine, but at the end of the day … it’s been about growing the sport. That’s what every coach in this room has tried to do over the years.
“We are constantly trying to do anything that will make us a better program and promote the sport. In all fairness, I feel we have done that … and we want to keep doing that.”
John Bonecutter — who picked up his fourth Dix Manning AA Coaching Award this past weekend — did note that his colleagues are also under consideration for staff of the year in West Virginia … something he waited to share with them during this discussion.
Andy Lambert also picked up the 2020 Videographer of the Year award for Point Pleasant, the sixth time he’s earned that honor with the program.
The final question of the interview went solely to the head coach, and the question was rather simple … even though it wasn’t. After all, predicting the future isn’t easy.
So, how long can Point Pleasant keep this magical wrestling run going into the future?
Two years? Five years? Longer?
“As long as the kids want to keep working,” John Bonecutter said with a grin of confidence.
Since becoming the head coach at Point Pleasant in 2010, the Big Blacks have won five state titles and produced 19 individual championships between 15 different grapplers under Bonecutter. The program has 30 individual state champions between 21 different wrestlers overall.
Point’s first state champion — individually — came from Alex Reed in the 1998 Class AAA tournament.
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Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.