This winter, Centennial senior wrestler Nathan Kraisser challenged himself by going to the Walsh Ironman tournament, one of the most demanding on the East Coast, where he lost three matches to double his career total.
Oakland Mills senior Tony Farace moved up a weight class last month just to take on Kraisser in a Howard County match.
And Eric Friedman of St. Paul's relished his team's trips to out-of-state tournaments, which gave him opportunities to face some of the strongest wrestlers in the country.
Over the next three weeks at their respective state tournaments, Kraisser, Farace and Friedman will use the experience they've gained in an attempt to join a small group of high school wrestlers who have achieved the distinction of becoming four-time state champions.
Friedman (126 pounds) will get his chance at the Maryland Independent Schools tournament Friday and Saturday. Farace (120) and Kraisser (126) will attempt the feat at the Maryland Secondary Schools Athletic Association's state tournament March 2-3.
Over the history of the state tournaments, only eight Maryland wrestlers have finished their high school careers with four state titles.
One of the reasons these three are in that position is their relentless pursuit of competition. But there is more behind their achievements than that.
"First and foremost, it's being able to stay healthy," said River Hill coach Brandon Lauer, who has coached all three in his spring and fall wrestling program called Team Penguin. "In 2007, Vince Taweel, a wrestler from Hammond blew out his knee in the quarterfinals at the state tournament when he was in the process of going for his fourth title.
"These three kids, going for the fourth now, they've all got a tremendous work ethic. I see how competitive they are. You see that just in every practice. But what sets them apart, I think, is that they've figured out the balance. Wrestling can be quite grueling, if you don't find the balance."
As a wrestler, Lauer was a three-time state champion, winning every state meet he was in. But during his freshman year at River Hill, he was too small to qualify for even the lightweight class. He offers this list of what it takes to just get the opportunity to go for four.
Aside from health, he said the qualities it takes to go for four titles include: Being mentally and physically mature enough to win the first and second titles against the more experienced upperclassmen; pre-high school training; year-round training and development; self confidence; and some luck.
It is grueling, and wrestlers seldom plan ahead because no one knows what injury may be waiting on the next takedown. But after winning their freshman year, Kraisser, Farace and Friedman each had the magic number in mind.
"When I won the first one, I thought about four," Kraisser said. "But you have to take them one at a time."
"After I won the first one, everyone said, 'Oh, now win four,'" Farace said. "Wow. A lot of pressure. I'm thinking, 'I've got to do this'. It's really hard to put all that pressure on yourself."
"My dad mentioned four after the first one," Friedman said. "But I was just hoping to be the best I could be. A lot can happen in a year. I've been able to keep my streak going, but it will be tough to get it done."
One of the characteristics that has set Friedman apart is, as St. Paul's coach Jay Braunstein says, "his tolerance for pain."
Friedman (181-28 career, 41-8 this season) hasn’t missed a match this winter and won his fourth MIAA A Conference title Saturday despite coping with a partially torn medial collateral knee ligament in his knee.
Farace, who is 151-5 for his career and 30-5 this season, sustained a shoulder injury during his match against Kraisser. Kraisser (141-6 career, 25-3 this season), who is ranked No. 11 in his weight class nationally by Intermat, won that match handily, but Farace and Kraisser say they valued the meeting because of the skills they had to use.
"I was disappointed to lose," Farace said. "Nathan is nationally ranked. I knew that heading into the match, but it is always good to challenge yourself and get ready for the hardest competition that's coming in states."
"My goal in every match is to increase the difference [margin of victory]," said Kraisser, who will wrestle at North Carolina next year. "You've got to make sure you push yourself as hard as you can — and even harder."
Kraisser said the fact there are so few four-time champions speaks to how difficult it is to keep improving every year.
"There's always someone you have trouble against," he said. "Sometimes you get caught. Sometimes people get too caught up and don't work as hard as they need to. I try to stay humble and remember my losses."
All three agree with Lauer's points, but each has his own idea about what it has taken to get to this level.
For Friedman, who will wrestle at Pennsylvania, it is being relentless in his preparation and taking advantage of every opportunity. For Kraisser it is preparation, treating every opponent the same and never being finished proving something to himself. And for Farace, who is still exploring his college options, which include Maryland, it has been finding a way to have fun while working hard to achieve.
Farace has wrestled nearly his entire life, but he thought about giving it up after his freshman year when his cousin Matthew Barcase was killed in an auto accident.
"Matthew was more like a brother to me, and after that happened, I didn't truly want to wrestle going in to my sophomore year," Farace said. "I wasn't having fun. But with the help of my parents and coaches, I learned how to have fun with wrestling — making friends, cracking a joke or two during the water break, goofing around together before and after practice.
"Wrestling is so hard. I learned if you're not having fun, it's not worth doing it at all. I think it's key to what Nathan, Eric and I have been able to do. Each of us has learned in our own way how to have fun within the sport. Having fun with it is what enables you to work harder. I think all three of us are very hard workers, determined and strong-willed. But we're human, like anyone else. I think the fact that we all have fun with the sport is what sets us apart."
Friedman exhibited some of that playfulness when asked his favorite wrestling move. He didn't talk about the cradle that Farace has worked hard to perfect, nor did he take Kraisser's general, "whatever works," approach.
"My favorite move," Friedman said, "is when the ref raises my hand at the end of the match signifying I've won."
All three of them hope to execute that move to perfection over the next few weeks.
Previous four-time state champions
MPSSAA: Matt Slutzky, Aberdeen (1989-1992); Steve Kessler, Owings Mills (1994-1997); Josh Asper, Hereford (2005-2008); George Scheffel, Southern Garrett (2007-2010).
MIS: Mack Lewnes (2003-2006), Mount St. Joseph; Mike Rowe, DeMatha (2002-2005); Josh Fitch, McDonogh (2005-2008).
Maryland Scholastic Association (no longer in existence): Greg Peery, Mount St. Joseph (1977-1980).