It took time for Jay LaValley to adjust to the expectations of Maryland wrestlers when he moved to Baltimore from Massachusetts in 2005, especially as he jumped back into the sport after a long hiatus.
"Being away from the sport for 10 years, I thought I could just jump back in, but it's a whole different level of wrestling," LaValley said. "Down here, they take the sport a little more serious than they do up in New England, and it shows in the results."
Now, in his first year as Maryland State Wrestling Association chairman and head coach for Team Maryland, LaValley wants his squad to live up to those same expectations that he faced when he started training in Baltimore.
On Friday, 70 competitors from the state — an all-time high — will travel to Fargo, N.D., for the USA Wrestling Junior & Cadet National Championships. The team hopes to return with a record number of All-Americans from the event, which runs through July 20.
Though Maryland wrestling hasn't always been competitive on a national level, many team members believe this year's squad is one of the best the state has fielded in the 50-plus years Maryland has traveled to the event.
"We used to not be good — everyone thought Maryland was a joke — and here we are, coming home with top four, top five in the nation," said John Carroll rising junior Chris Almony, who was an All-American in the cadet class last year. "We're doing really good. It's just proving that we're good wrestlers."
And LaValley, 37, has certainly helped perpetuate the growth and strength of the Maryland team.
After former chairman Neil Adleberg stepped down last year, LaValley was promoted to the role. He set goals for the team, with the primary objective to surpass last year's record number of All-Americans (21), a designation for the top eight finishers in a weight class.
"He's definitely upped the spirits of the team and allowed ourselves to expect us to win," said Mount St. Joseph's Dan Hawkins, a returning All-American in the 182-pound Greco-Roman junior division. "He's told us that's what we've got to do, what we've got to believe in if we want to win."
Hawkins didn't hesitate to declare that he believes all 70 wrestlers can come home as All-Americans — LaValley has more modest expectations — and the rising senior, who's returning from minor knee surgery, is looking to win his class after finishing fifth last year.
"There's no reason to think someone won't [be an All-American]," Hawkins said. "Crazy things happen there. If you try to be precise about it, then you're not focused on the right thing. Just get out there and wrestle."
LaValley said the energy and the team unity are two components he stressed this year, and he named Archbishop Spalding rising senior Logan Breitenbach — who is still looking for his first All-American honor — as the team's captain to help lead and mentor the younger wrestlers.
On Wednesday, the team members finished a 12-day circuit of training camps in preparation for the Fargo tournament, but many wrestlers also compete in other events during the summer.
John Carroll rising junior Hunter Ritter, who's heading to Fargo for the first time, wrestled in the Cadet National Duals in Daytona Beach, Fla., last month, and Breitenbach went to Georgia and Iowa to familiarize himself with his potential opponents in Fargo.
Team Maryland is also sending two female wrestlers — another record number — to the event, which features separate classes for girls.
North County rising junior Olivia Devine, who also will make her first trip to Fargo, wants to place in both classes. Harriet Symington, a rising senior at Walt Whitman in Montgomery County and a returning double All-American, is practicing at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado until traveling to Fargo.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they both won," Breitenbach said about Devine and Symington. "They can hang with us out there, so there's no reason why they can't."
LaValley said the team has never before had this sense of camaraderie, and he thinks this year's team could have 25 All-Americans.
"It's rewarding to me to watch the whole process, more so than any other wrestling," LaValley said. "Just the whole process of watching the kids grow as individuals and come together as a team — that's more important than the wrestling itself. It makes this year pretty special for me."
USA Wrestling Junior & Cadet National Championships
Where: Fargo, N.D.
When: July 12-20
More information: themat.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun