COLLEGE PARK — Ever since Maryland chose to join the Big Ten next year, its wrestlers have taken a beating. Frank Goodwin can't don his sweats and stroll through a mall without getting an earful.
"I'll wear my Maryland stuff out and about, and I'll hear people say 'Welcome to the Big Ten' with a taunt in their voices. I get it a lot," said Goodwin, a 149-pound redshirt junior and the 2010 All-Metro Wrestler of the Year at Arundel.
The Terps will face a stiff test in their new digs. The country's top three wrestling teams — Minnesota, Penn State and Iowa — hail from the Big Ten, which put nine of its 12 schools in the latest Top 25 rankings.
Never mind that Maryland has won 24 Atlantic Coast Conference championships heading into this year's event Saturday at Virginia Tech. Next season, Maryland's ascent to the premier wrestling conference "will be much more difficult than what the football or basketball teams will face," said Mike Finn, editor of Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine. "And the fact that [defending national champion] Penn State is now the standard-bearer in Division I will make it even tougher for an Eastern team."
The Terps — who officially become members of the Big Ten in July — don't buy the woe-is-Maryland mantra. Not in the long run, anyway.
"I hear the same stuff. People look down on us like the Big Ten is going to run all over us," said Spencer Myers, Maryland's junior heavyweight who is ranked No. 8 nationally.
"We'll take our lumps but we'll survive. You learn from facing good competition; you grow from it," Myers said. "To survive, you must adapt. That's what happens to animals in the wild, and it works that way in wrestling too."
The Terps (9-8 , 3-3 ACC) have won the conference tournament four of the past six years, most recently in 2012. Despite a so-so season, they have the muscle to challenge again. Besides Myers (21-3), two others rank among the country's elite: Jimmy Sheptock (26-0) is No. 2 at 184 pounds, and Christian Boley (21-2) is No. 3 at 197. Both are seniors.
"We expect to win the ACC," coach Kerry McCoy said bluntly. "These guys want to go out on top. 'Drive For 25' has been our slogan all year. It's not a round number, but we don't want to finish with 24 conference titles."
On March 20 comes the NCAA tournament, a Big Ten showcase for seven years running. Penn State has won it three straight times (the Terps' best finish was 10th place in 2009). It's the Nittany Lions with whom Maryland is expected to forge a geographic rivalry. Nearly as many current Terps come from Pennsylvania (11) as from Maryland (12), including Sheptock. Also, McCoy has ties to Penn State, having coached and wrestled there as a three-time All-American and two-time NCAA champ.
When the teams last met in 2007, Penn State coasted, 34-3. But pundits say Maryland's move to the Big Ten will attract prize recruits to College Park, including those just north who previously had snubbed the Terps.
"Pennsylvania is one of two states [with California] with the best high school wrestling," said Craig Sesker, spokesman for USA Wrestling. "Maryland may get some kids, if not blue chippers, who want to compete in the Big Ten to prove themselves."
Others, he said, may choose the Terps because they're more likely to start than at more talent-rich schools in the conference.
"We're going after the best kids in the country and a lot of them are right up the road in Pennsylvania," McCoy said. "This makes [recruiting] that much easier. First, though, we want to get the best kids in Maryland to stay home."
He has already landed two high school seniors with top 10 national rankings in their weight class: Alfred Bannister (141 pounds) from Bishop McNamara in Forestville, and Josh Llopez (165) from St. Mary's Ryken in Leonardtown. It's the first time since McCoy's arrival in 2008 that the Terps have signed two top 10 wrestlers in the same year.
The Big Ten sold both on Maryland.
"That's the prime-time conference," said Bannister, 67-1 as a senior. "What better choice than to attend your home state college, since it's going to the Big Ten? There's no greater experience than to walk into Iowa's gym and hear the fans going crazy."
For Llopez, 74-3 this year, college had been a toss-up between Oklahoma State, North Carolina and Maryland. Like Bannister, he signed with the Terps last summer after the announcement of their conference move.
"That was a huge sell, a no-brainer," said Llopez, who can't wait to butt heads in the Big Ten. "If you can survive wrestling dual meets at Iowa and Penn State, then you can compete in the national tournament."
Current Terps agreed.
"It'll be cool to wrestle on TV every week and in front of 15,000 fans instead of the 500 that we get," said Geoffrey Alexander, a 133-pound, junior from Pittsburgh who is 25-2 this year. "It'll be tough, and a lot of traveling, but it's really going to help us down the road in building a legacy for Maryland. One day, too, it'd be nice to knock off Kerry's old team."
As for Goodwin (12-7), the derisive comments don't bother him a whit.
"No matter what happens, I'll be part of the first class at Maryland to wrestle in the Big Ten. I can say I was there when we switched over," he said. "We definitely have a tougher road than some other teams here but, being wrestlers, we're not trained to go into this scared.
"We're not going to sink our heads and think we'll be at the bottom of the pack. We'll just go in and prove ourselves and say, 'We're here.' "Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun