Devon Starks originally intended on playing basketball.
But when he went to sign up in seventh grade at Glen Landing Middle School, his principal told him he missed the deadline. That’s when Starks’ cousin influenced him to to start wrestling.
Six years later, Starks, a Highland senior 220-pound wrestler with a 28-1 record, started a run at the NJSIAA state championship at Districts on Friday.
“It was kind of like God telling me to wrestle instead of play basketball,” Starks said.
“I think it worked out for him,” senior 182-pound wrestler Jared Colbert said. “He’s been a big contributor to the wrestling team this year and I hope he does some big things in the states.”
Last season, Starks made it to states, but he didn’t place after he lost to then Howell senior Eric Keosseian, the eventual state champion.
Highland assistant coach Chalie Huff said there was a large disparity between Keosseian’s and Starks’ technique during the match. After the loss in states, Starks knew he had to become a better all-around wrestler for his senior season.
During the preseason in November in Highland’s wrestling room, Huff delivered a message to Starks.
“I said, ‘Listen, you learned a very valuable lesson,’ ” Huff said he told Starks. ”What that kid did to you up at states… you can do that to people. You can do that to other athletes. You are that good. You can do that.”
Starks frequently relied on his strength to outmatch opponents in his junior season, Highland coach Frank Plefka said.
Starks, a linebacker and offensive lineman on Highland’s football team, used the same strength he used to squat and dead lift 500 pounds to toss competitors across the mat.
Opponents started to prepare for Starks’ “blast double,” a move that is like a tackle and goes through the other wrestler, prior to matches last season. During the region finals in 2017, Plefka noticed then St. Joseph’s Hammonton senior Mike Mascioli and coach Mark Manchio from across the gym at Egg Harbor Township preparing to defend Starks’ signature move.
But instead of relying solely on his strength, Starks now has the confidence to shoot more at opponents and wrestle on his feet after working with Huff and the other coaches on his technique.
“This year Devon has evolved, he’s become a better wrestler because of it,” Plekfa said. “He still has the ability to throw kids. He’s thrown kids this year, but now he’s become more of a complete wrestler.”
When Starks saw Huff at practice on Monday, he told him that he’s ready to finish off the season and win states.
“You can see it in his eyes,” Huff said. “When you have a kid at 17, 18 years old saying that to you without you bringing it up, that means they’re ready.”