Dulaney Lions

Dulaney's Dylan Ruiz, top, ranks as one of Lions' top wrestlers after winning 26 matches last year. He's 6-2 this season. (File photos / December 12, 2012)

When practices first started in mid-November, Dulaney coach Desi McNelis had a slew of questions about his team. The Lions looked like a huge rebuilding project.

It's certainly one of the youngest teams in McNelis' 15 seasons at the Lions' helm.

"It's kind of a strange mix," McNelis said. "I have a couple of seniors, a few juniors. I have as many as seven sophomores starting. It seemed early on, we would have a tough time making this team jell."

Fast forward a couple of weeks.

The Lions are coming together much better than McNelis could have ever anticipated.

"I have seen a big improvement," McNelis said. "They are really working hard and encouraging each other. I am seeing a lot of team spirit, which I didn't see earlier. I didn't know if I was going to. It will be a strong team. I think we can easily be top six in the county."

With so much youth on the team, McNelis will lean on two senior captains, Pat Hoffman (138 pounds, 6-2) and Anthony Appicello (160) along senior Dylan Ruiz (126 pounds, 6-2) and junior Jacob Asher (152, 7-1).

McNelis especially expects huge postseasons from both Ruiz and Asher.

Ruiz has as much potential as any Dulaney wrestler. He went 26-9 last year and finished sixth in the region in only his second year competing in the sport.

"I think he could win states," McNelis said. "He was in the toughest weight class in the state last year. He has a mixed martial arts background. He is much more focused this year."

Asher had best season of any returning Dulaney grappler. He placed both third in the county and region last year while going 33-11.

Asher trained in the offseason like a champion. Like Ruiz, he didn't start wrestling until high school.

"He can easily place in states," McNelis said. "How far can he go? He can compete with anybody in his weight class on his feet. He just has worked really hard all year long to improve and he will be a lot better than he was last year."

Of the seven sophomores McNelis talked about, he gets excited about Sean Hoffman (170, 6-2) as much as any of them. Hoffman took fifth in the county last year and won 29 matches.

"He is very quiet, very focused wrestler," McNelis said. "He worked very hard on the weights in the offseason and with the Pikesville Mad Cats."

Dan Matthews (145, 9-3 last year) and Jessie Beall (17-18) are two other sophomores with promise.

The Dulaney coaching staff hopes Malik Kasim (113), Fabrizio Scott (132), Elmer Smith (220) and Khalid Powell (170) can also develop.

"They are really the future of the program," Dulaney assistant coach Gary Persinger said. "We are just trying to build their confidence and teach them more technique. You can't look at how they perform today. You have to look at how they are performing by the county championships."

Seniors Gary Fauntleroy (285), Seth Dorman (112) and Conor Handzo (195) are also wrestlers to watch.