In the movie “Hoosiers,” basketball coach Norman Dale leads his small town team into Hinkle Field House at Butler University for the Indiana state championships, and his players are awestruck by the arena’s size.
What does Dale do? He pulls out a tape measurer and has his squad measure the height of the basket from the floor. It’s 10 feet, just like in any other gym. His players’ reaction is to let out a sigh of relief. They know they can play the game.
The scene has become a classic for coaches trying to inspire teams in all sports. Walking in to Cole Field House Friday for the start of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association’s state wrestling tournament can give athletes the same doubts as the team from Hickory, Ind., in “Hoosiers.”
They’ll fight the jitters and wonder if they’re good enough.
Many are freshmen, but even for the more experienced in the group — including Centennial senior Nathan Kraisser (126 pounds) and Oakland Mills’ senior Tony Farace (120), who are each going for the rare fourth state crown — nerves will be a factor.
“I think I’ll be nervous naturally,” Farace said. “It’s good to be slightly nervous. It keeps you on edge and let’s you know you’re ready.”
“A lot of winning is mental,” Kraisser said. “You’ve got to be mentally strong to push through.”
Winters Mill coach John Lowe and River Hill coach Brandon Lauer can already feel the excitement. Lowe, whose team won the Class 2A-1A title last year for the first time in school history, is eyeing a repeat. Lauer is hoping this might be the year his team wuns its first crown in 4A-3A.
Lowe wants to find out if his team “can endure high caliber competition without losing its composure” and create a special legacy. The Falcons have already put together a successful season, going 32-0, winning the Carroll County and 2A-1A West Region titles and the state dual meet tournament.
The Falcons have qualified eight wrestlers for states, including three county champions — Taylor Logue (113), Cody Sharkey (145), and Brandon Burndley (220). Sharkey is 42-0, and all three are No. 1 seeds in their weight classes.
If Winters Mill emerges as the champion Saturday night, it would be the first Carroll County school to take both the dual and tournament titles in the same season.
“I’m aware that a season like this doesn’t come along too often,” Lowe said. “I’m mindful of that. If we were to pull it out, it would be a perfect ending to a perfect year.”
It comes with pressure, self-inflicted and otherwise. Owings Mills (with 13 wrestlers qualifying), Glenelg (eight) and Fallston (five) will be among the other teams challenging for a championship. And just walking into Cole Field House will add to the uncertainty.
“It’s like that scene in the ‘Bad News Bears’ when the team walks into the Astrodome and is overwhelmed,” Lowe said. “It’s a huge arena; there are eight mats on the floor and a huge crowd. I think if we can avoid the ‘Astrodome Syndrome’ we’ll be all right.
“I think a lot of guys lose on nerves alone in the first two rounds. The secret is to get to the semifinals, where you can regroup and relax a little.”
Lauer — who brings three 4A-3A East Region champions in Cory Daniel (160), Omar Messallam (182) and Jacob Benedict (220) — agrees about the arena’s impact.
“Last year, I took the whole team there,” the River Hill coach said. “I think it’s important to prepare your guys for the atmosphere they’re going to experience. All eight of the participants we’re taking this year were there last year as participants or spectators, because I thought it was important. John is right. [The scene] can be overwhelming.”
River Hill (32-7) came through the Howard County and regional tournaments with record team point productions, but — like every other team this weekend — the Hawks will face an expanded field and wrestlers they may not have seen before. A total of 448 regional qualifiers will be competing for 28 individual weight class titles. In 4A-3A, Lauer expects defending champ La Plata, Urbana, Tuscarora, North Point and Perry Hall to be strong contenders.
But he said a consistent routine before every match and every tournament helps his wrestlers keep their focus.
“Everything from the warmups to the pre-match preparations are the same,” he said. “If they’re consistent, they can be successful. We talk about it every single match.”
River Hill finished second in 2009, losing the lead to Southern Garrett with one match to go. The hawks would like to win that elusive first state title, but Lauer said it’s difficult to “predict and project.”
“All you can do is have faith,” he said. “They’ve earned the right to earn their gold medal this week. I’m confident in their ability to wrestle their best in every round. I tell them all they have to do is focus and be better then the guy in front of you for that day. No more, no less than that.”