One of the fun aspects of each wrestling season is debating which team is the best in the Baltimore area.
This year, the conversation centers on whether defending Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference and Maryland Independent Schools champion McDonogh is at the top, or whether the No. 1 ranking belongs to a public school squad, like Winters Mill or River Hill, which both return strong teams after winning the Class 2A-1A and Class 4A-3A state championships, respectively, last season.
It's a lot like figuring out the national champion in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision. There is no playoff that includes everyone to settle the matter.
But early this season, Maryland's wrestling fans will have a better idea about the answer than they may have ever had before.
No. 1 McDonogh, No. 2 Winters Mill and No. 3 River Hill will be joined by No. 5 John Carroll and No. 12 Wilde Lake in a 10-team field at the McDonogh Holiday Duals on Dec. 28 and 29 to find out which school reigns supreme.
It's a gathering so rare that no one can remember when three defending state champions last met in one place.
The seed for the meeting was planted last March when Winters Mill coach John Lowe noted his team ended the 2011-12 season with a 32-0 record, earning both the Class 2A-1A state tournament and state duals titles. But the Falcons finished No. 2 in The Baltimore Sun's final poll, behind McDonogh, which won the MIAA and MIS titles before finishing fourth at the National Preps championships.
"We're going to the McDonogh [Holiday] Duals and settle this," Lowe said when he was selected as the All-Metro Coach of the Year.
Lowe and McDonogh coach Pete Welch have been friends for decades, and the rivalry between the two men and their teams, while real, is friendly -- as it is with River Hill coach Brandon Lauer, who was coached by both.
"I don't see any negatives in this," Lauer said. "Maryland wrestling is unique with the private schools and the public schools, which each have different rules. To have this opportunity is extremely rare. What this does is show that each program is willing to wrestle the best. Pete, John and I all want to just push our kids to get better. A meet like this will prepare everyone there for their postseasons."
While McDonogh, Winters Mill and River Hill once again appear to be the premier teams in the area, their conference, county and state rivals are seeking to dethrone them.
In the MIAA, John Carroll and No. 4 Archbishop Spalding appear to be the strongest challengers for the Eagles, but No. 10 Mount St. Joseph is getting tougher. No. 11 St. Paul's, despite losing several champions, including four-time MIAA and MIS champion Eric Friedman, still features a competitive team. With the talent level in the MIAA A Conference, almost no one can be overlooked.
"McDonogh takes big trips to tournaments like Beast of the East and the Ironman to face some of the best teams in the country and then they come home to Maryland to compete here," Lauer said. "This is our opportunity to get that same kind of experience by facing them. McDonogh is the best in Maryland and competes well on the national level. We can learn from that."
In Howard County, the Hawks will have to contend with the Wildecats, as well as No. 9 Reservoir, No. 12 Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills and Glenelg, while Winters Mill will get challenges from No. 14 South Carroll, No. 15 Liberty and Century.
Anne Arundel County's No. 6 South River, North County, Meade and Old Mill should make an impact heading into the postseason, while Harford County's Fallston, C. Milton Wright and Bel Air are teams to watch.
No. 7 Owings Mills, No. 8 Hereford and Sparrows Point lead the notable teams in Baltimore County, and Poly, Digital Harbor, Mervo and City will field strong programs in Baltimore City.
The McDonogh Holiday Duals should provide a glimpse into which local team deserves to be No. 1, but are Winters Mill and River Hill also carrying the weight of public school wrestling on their shoulders?
"I didn't think of that pressure until you just brought it up," Lowe said. "McDonogh has a strong team and has earned its reputation. [It has] some advantages, being able to recruit across the East Coast. We have a completely different dynamic. I get ninth graders, many of them have never wrestled before. It's my job to develop them in two years. Our players develop at a different rate in different environments. I wouldn't say we're apples and oranges, but we're different kinds of apples.
Our goal is to come out as unscathed as possible. That's the goal of every underdog."
Kenwood coach John Cooper, a former Archbishop Curley wrestler who is in his first year with the Bluebirds, said he will watch the McDonogh event with interest, but he doesn't think the results will carry the same impact as they would have decades ago when there was very little crossover or mixing of private and public school wrestlers.
"The sport has evolved so much since I went to Curley [in the 1980s] and some of my friends went to Overlea," Cooper said. "Public school kids now have a sense of pride in their schools and sport. I think there is a sense of respect. It's 'Hey, we're all competitors. I want to wrestle the best guy.' I think this match is a great thing. You want your wrestlers to meet the best. If you've got exceptional wrestlers like those teams do, you should be competing with each other."
The outcome will inspire others, Hereford coach Ron Causey said.
"Meets like this make your kids tougher," Causey said. "I think anytime you take good wrestlers and give them great competition, it's exciting. It's not equal footing at McDonogh, but I think Winters Mill can hang with McDonogh just fine."
At McDonogh, Welch smiles.
"I think this is pretty awesome," he said. "We have all three state champions in Maryland coming here to go at each other. I'm not thinking about how they match up with us, I think it's more about how we match up with them. I'm just excited to have such good competition within our state."
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