South Carroll wrestling coach Bryan Hamper isn't used to being seen as an underdog.
That's a position the Cavaliers haven't been in for a long time.
After all, the Cavaliers have been dominant, winning three straight county titles and the past three Class 2A-1A state championships. Hamper and his team will be going for an epic fourth straight state title Friday and Saturday at Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, but for a change the Cavaliers are not the favorite.
Middletown is the roadblock — or maybe more like a wall.
The Knights showed their superiority with a convincing win Feb. 25 in the team race in the Class 2A-1A West Region wrestling tournament at Middletown. The Cavaliers, though, are fired up for the rematch with another state title at stake.
"We can't wait to compete against them again," Hamper said. "They have 10 guys going to states and we believe we have the right eight going to get it done. But we have to be perfect to beat a team like Middletown. People have said, 'Middletown is going to run away with the title.' Some people are calling Middletown the best [Maryland] public school team ever. The hype is real."
Hamper would make the same statement about two of his wrestlers: Seniors Joey Thomas (126 pounds, 43-1) and Jamar Williams (170, 44-0).
Thomas and Williams are both gunning for their third individual state championship.
Only three others from Carroll County have accomplished that feat — Westminster's Steve Hoff (1974-1976), South Carroll's Mike Chenoweth (1994-96), and North Carroll's Fran Jackson (1998-99, 2002).
"This will be my last opportunity to sit in the corner and coach these guys," Hamper said. "We will enjoy of every second of this and we believe they will get it done. But one thing I preach to them: Don't make it bigger than it is. They've wrestled in big tournaments and against national competition. This is just another tournament."
Thomas, a three-time county and region champion, who ranks as the state's public-school all-time leader in wins with 191, agrees.
"I look at it as just another tournament," Thomas said. "I will not change anything I am doing."
But Thomas admits he'll be edgy, and he says Williams, who boasts a career record of 139-3, is calmer approaching the state tournament.
"People say, 'I don't look nervous,'" Thomas said. "I just don't show it. I keep it inside. I am always nervous no matter who I wrestle."
Cam Werner (132, 33-8), Dakota Bowers (113, 40-4), Travis Crawford (120, 43-1), Tyler Harbison (138, 36-6) and Jake MacKenzie (152, 39-4) and Jagger Clapsadle (106, 41-3) are South Carroll's other wrestlers to watch.
MacKenzie took fourth in the state last year and Werner finished fifth.
Over at Century, seniors Jack Akers (220, 31-0), Cody Davis (160, 33-2) and Sam Rothstein (285, 30-2) are having memorable seasons. Davis and Akers won both county and regional championships, while Rothstein placed second at both tournaments.
"It's very difficult to win a state title," Century coach Steve Willingham said. "You have guys coming from all these different tournaments. Our guys have made it a goal of winning it since the beginning of the season. Anything less would be a disappointment. As much as I want them to win a state title, I am happy with what they have done so far."
Liberty's Evan Bliden (160, 24-4) and Noah Wienclawski (182, 23-19), Francis Scott Key's Paul Hann (285, 30-8) and Gabe Mojica (132, 30-8), and Winters Mill's Hunter Lowe (182, 36-7), A.J. Holmes (220, 36-7) and Troy Blessing (145, 35-7) also hope to make their presence felt in the 2A-1A bracket.
On the 4A-3A side, Zach McAleer (132, 35-5) and Harrison Walsh (220, 29-7) will represent Manchester Valley, while Brad Walsh (138, 38-6), Garrett Vandervalk (182, 39-6), Jaime Rodriguez (285, 44-2) and Tyler Watkins (145, 30-5) are eager to post a top finish for Westminster.
McAleer and Vandervalk won regional championships.
"A lot of wrestlers want to go in there and change what they are doing," Westminster coach Mike Flemming said. "Consistency is the most important thing. You don't want to change things. Consistency, fundamentals and finishing what you have been doing all year makes state champions."