The conclusion of a high school wrestling career is a joyous occasion for most teenagers. It means that they can trade their singlet for shorts and tee shirts, their headgear for baseball caps, and their strict diets for burgers and hot dogs off the grill.
But when River Hill senior Cory Daniel had his hand raised after his second consecutive state title on March 7 at the University of Maryland's Cole Field House, it meant that he had only three weeks to prepare for the NHSCA High School National Championships in Virginia Beach.
"There was no rest, it was all getting ready, training for nationals," coach Brandon Lauer said. "He didn't take any time off, he stayed on the mat."
After taking an off day on Sunday, Daniel was back at it on Monday, practicing at UMBC, Mount St. Joseph, River Hill; anywhere he could be pushed to become better.
"I had a big tournament to prepare for and I knew that I had to put in the work to be ready," he said.
Riding an impressive 88 consecutive win streak, Daniel — the Howard County Times and Columbia Flier Wrestler of the Year — had little left to prove before putting on a University of North Carolina singlet next fall. But as long as there were more opponents to wrestle, Daniel had no interest in resting.
"I think when Cory decided he wanted to wrestle in college, it's because he enjoys the challenge, he enjoys the competition, and it's all on him," Lauer said. "That's what drives him."
At Virginia Beach, the three-time Howard County champion who has been wrestling since he was eight years old plowed through wrestlers from New York, Virginia, West Virginia and Texas without allowing a takedown to advance to the national championship.
There, he lost to two-time Georgia state champion Matthew Moore of Apalachee High School, 7-6, in triple-overtime. It will likely not be the last time Daniel and Moore compete, as Moore has also committed to wrestle for the Tarheels next year.
"To be a finalist is pretty special," Lauer said. "Losing in triple-overtime was difficult, but he wrestled a great match against a great opponent and just fell a little short."
Daniel was not discouraged by the loss.
"I'm very proud of what I did, and Matthew Moore is a great opponent," he said. "I just made a few mistakes at the end. I'm looking forward to training with him the next few years."
While a loss after more than 90 straight wins might be looked at as an advantageous lesson for some wrestlers heading into a Division I wrestling room, Daniel has never had a problem humbling himself, or tempering his confidence.
As a freshman, Daniel finished 31-12 and did not place at the state tournament after finishing third in the county and fourth in the region. One year later, he improved to 42-8, winning his first county and regional titles, but taking a disappointing sixth at the state tournament. Of course, that 3-2 loss to Huntingtown's Colton Rowe as a sophomore was the last time he would lose in high school. With his 46-0 record this season, Daniel set the all-time record for wins at River Hill with 162 against only 22 losses.
"I was counting down the wins and getting antsy," Daniel said of setting the daunting record. "I was able to get that far because of all the time in the practice room."
Daniel, a two-time all-county tight end in football, has also experienced great success — a state championship two years ago — and failure on the football field, losing in the state semifinals in November.
In fact, after completing his wrestling career at UNC, he plans to attend a regional combine in hopes of playing in the NFL.
Despite being one of the most physically advanced athletes to ever come through Howard County — the result of a decade of disciplined dieting and rigorous training — Daniel is anything but an arrogant, boastful showoff. He has always won and — much more rarely — lost with a quiet professionalism, as if the wrestling mat is simply a small arena to display the countless hours of work that he puts in before the actual competition.
"He's really physically imposing but he's pretty shy and quiet," Lauer said. "He's laid back and just wants to hang out with his friends."
It helped that many of Daniel's friends were on the wrestling team, including longtime practice partner and fellow state champion Logan Kirby, as well as his younger brother, 160-pound freshman, Brady.