Participating on a varsity level in any sport can be a major change from junior high school, or even junior varsity. Better, more experienced foes are quick to use their advantages while the rookie varsity athlete may find him or herself struggling to grow accustomed to the jump in the quality of the competition.

Lackawanna Trail sophomore wrestler Trent Phillips fell into that scenario last year, with his wins outnumbered by his losses. But he can also be counted among those who have adapted to the higher level of competition, starting out with a 23-10 mark this season.

“Mainly experience,” said Phillips. “Last year was tougher; this year it seems I have an easier weight class, the best kids are gone.”

He was in the unenviable position of being a freshman at 160 pounds, often going up against seniors and juniors with more varsity experience and nerves of steel. Phillips found himself trying to turn everything around against steep odds.

“He’s gotten a lot better since last year,” Lions head coach Keith Youtz said. “He didn’t win a lot of matches. He was a freshman, wrestling at a heavy weight class and, for a freshman, that can happen.”

As much as he struggled to find his way through varsity action, there was a light at the end of the tunnel of his freshman year as Phillips claimed a fifth-place finish in the District 2 Class AA Championships. It gave him a reward for all his troubles and gave him incentive through the long off-season.

“It was a surprise to finish there at 160,” Phillips said. “It felt good. I did have a couple of good wins last year; I pulled a couple of upsets.”

Phillips knew exactly where he needed to improve.

“I had to get stronger — I can tell there’s a big difference with being able to compete physically with the bigger kids,” Phillips said. “Last year I wasn’t as strong as they were. I spent quite a bit of time in the weight room. My technique is a lot better; I’m more comfortable on the mat. Last year I was quite nervous.”

Youtz, beginning his second stint as the Lions head wrestling coach, liked a lot of what he saw from Phillips early in the year.

“He’s a solid kid, very strong, very athletic and stays in good position,” Youtz said. “He’s not flashy, but he moves pretty well for a big guy. He’s agile, does a lot of rolls and tumbles, moves that aren’t easy.”

Getting stronger was a physical barrier, but building his confidence was a mental hurdle that would be harder to measure. Yet the makeup of the Lions team ended up helping Phillips in that regard. Youtz saw that early in the season, as his teammates often looked to Phillips for

leadership.

“He has more confidence because he’s one of the kids back from last year,” Youtz said. “He, Thomas Fricke and Billy Lee, they’re the only three with experience. A lot of the kids are going up to him, asking him questions every match, and that’s helped him with his confidence.”

It seems that adding pressure has been part of his improvement on the mat.

“I feel that I’m more expected to win this year than [I was] last year,” Phillips said.

Getting through the 2013 portion of the schedule with a winning record made a huge impact on Phillips.

“It was a big part of the year,” Phillips said. “I’m a lot more confident; being one of three starters back from last year boosted my confidence. This year, I feel they expect me to win. I knew I had to step up as a sophomore.”

“Last year, he didn’t have that confidence. I think it’s great he’s found some success this year, and he’s taken it from there,” Youtz said. “He’s picked up technique from a lot of drills, and he’s in the right position more often.”

The postseason has already begun for Phillips, who led the Lions into the District 2 Dual Meet Championships on Saturday, Feb. 1 at the Kingston Armory. He picked up two wins in three bouts, helping the Lions to a 1-2 record in the eight-team event.

“I didn’t do as well as I could have, winning one, getting a forfeit, and losing 5-4 to a kid I should have beaten,” Phillips said.

What it means is more work in the practice room, with Phillips already intent on bettering his fifth-place finish in last year’s district meet. Buoyed by confidence, strength and comfort, the sophomore expects a better medal, and perhaps a trip to the Class AAA Northeast Regionals in Williamsport.

“He’s a great kid, he listens well, never complains,” Youtz said. “He does what he’s supposed to do.”

Now Phillips knows he has to be a leader for the inexperienced Lions, after having done the hard work in the weight room which has also helped him on the football field, where he is a lineman, as well as the baseball diamond, where he is an

outfielder.

But, Phillips says he is only concerned with completing his wrestling season by advancing as far as he can. Armed with confidence and strength, the sophomore feels he will be better prepared for what lies ahead.