Atholton junior Sean Billups believes this is his year.
The 170-pounder who has finished runner-up at the county tournament in each of his first two seasons has taken the next step this winter and currently is one of a small handful of county wrestlers with an undefeated record. At 22-0 overall this season, he won the Falcon Invitational at Winters Mill in early January, and more recently he won the Grapple at the Brook at Springbrook and pinned a Delaware state placer in the finals.
Billups is currently ranked No. 3 in the state in the official Maryland high school rankings and had a breakthrough early this season by avenging two prior losses to Glenelg’s Max Sotka with an overtime victory. More than that, the team captain has been key during Atholton’s return to relevance and quest for a spot in the 3A East regional duals.
Billups recently sat down with wrestling beat reporter Tim Schwartz to discuss how this season has been different, his big win over Sotka earlier this season, and why he believes he will be the Raiders’ first state champion since 2008.
Q: How has this season been different for you guys as a team compared to a few years ago?
A: I think it’s just consistency with the team. We have a lot of people who came back from last year and a lot of them have shown true strength and a liking of the sport, which made them stay and continue to learn about the sport and increase their skill level.
How much confidence did the team gain from finishing second at the county tournament and fourth at the regional tournament last year? Did the finish even surprise you guys a little bit?
I think it did. I think getting second at the counties was a big confidence booster being that a lot of the other schools were thinking it’s Atholton and they’re not going to put out, but when we came in second it definitely gave us confidence.
You have finished as a runner-up at the county tournament twice. How much did that motivate you throughout the offseason and through this season so far?
Extremely. I never forget any of those matches at the county tournament. It’s basically what drives me to excel and be more and not be average.
You’ve had some battles with Glenelg’s Max Sotka over the last year, losing to him in the county finals and regional semifinals in some close matches before beating him in overtime earlier this season. How much did getting that revenge mean to you?
That was a big boost for me winning that match this year. It felt great because it showed all the little things, going to Blue Claw [wrestling club] and Orange Crush and all that stuff really helped out. It showed that all the little things were leading to big things.
You were a match away from placing at the state tournament last year. What was your offseason regimen and did it change at all from previous years?
I sort of just continued what I had been doing. I’ve been doing a lot of training — I have a personal trainer, so I did a lot of flexibility and joints and mainly things that help develop my body along with my skill set.
Physically you seem to be much stronger this year than you were as a freshman and sophomore, which is key to being a young upper weight. How much effort have you put into getting physically stronger?
Well it helps when your dad is a coach, so it’s more just endurance. Whether it’s me reminding myself or him reminding me, I’m always working out on the weekends. I like to go for runs, sometimes with a 45-lb vest or a longer run without the vest. I like to keep myself in shape. I feel disgusting when I’m not in shape.
Every wrestler’s goal is to place at the state tournament, but you’ve come up just short the last two years. What makes you believe this is the year you can get that done?
I honestly think if I just continue doing what I’m doing and continue to take everyone as a personal threat, I think that I am capable of winning.
What are your goals for the rest of the season?
My goals are to continue being undefeated, increase my skill level and just keep doing what I’m doing and keep pushing myself.
What’s different about wrestling elite competition like Sotka compared to some other guys?
With Sotka especially, he’s a great wrestler and he’s got a lot of endurance and I think the main thing is endurance. It’s obviously technique and physical strength as well but you’ve got to outlast your opponent and stay on them and stay in the kitchen, as my coach says.
You’re not the only one on the team having a big season. What’s it been like watching guys like Drew Pruett, Derek Noppinger and Miles Easterling get better and rise the ranks?
It’s very emotional, especially in the close matches. It feels great when the whole team is working together and all the gears are moving together and you feel like this is an actual wrestling team. Everyone is devoted.
What do you feel like your role on the team is?
I feel like my role is to be the best captain I can be, to motivate people to push themselves like I push myself in the weight room and wrestling room. I also want to be a good role model off the mat.
You also play football, so how does football and wrestling compliment one another?
With football, I like to stay in shape. I don’t like to sit around. I’ve played football since I was 7 and I did track my freshman year, which helped out a lot with my endurance and leg strength and football is a lot of core and upper body. I think it all compliments my ability in wrestling.
You mentioned your dad, Sid, who has been a coach at Atholton for a long time. What’s it like having your dad as a coach? Is it mostly positive or are there some negatives?
It’s a bit of both but personally I love it. Even if I’m having a bad day, he’s there to push me, constantly critique my moves so I can be the man I want to be on the mat and off the mat. That’s a great privilege to have in life.
Atholton hasn’t had a state champion since Kevin Beck in 2008. Do you feel like you’re that guy?
I feel like I’m that guy. I just have that confidence that if I continue doing what I’m doing — if I continue pushing myself harder than ever after counties and regionals, I can accomplish that goal.
What are some of your other favorite wrestlers to watch around the county outside of Atholton?
I’d probably have to say I like watching Max Sotka, Justin Hooper [of Marriotts Ridge] because they’re around my weight class, but I also like watching Kyle Farace [of Oakland Mills]. I think he’s an amazing wrestler.
Do you learn from some of those guys by watching from a distance?
With Kyle, he’s super fast and he’s got perfect technique. I think he’s an absolute animal when it comes to wrestling and he’s devoted.
How do things change as the season progresses and you get deeper into the postseason?
It all changes with how determined you are to come out on top. With a lot of guys, the wrestling season is beginning to end, so a lot of guys tend to deteriorate and their motivation level drops, but I think if you keep your hopes high and the motivation going then you’ll be in a good place.