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Francis Scott Key grad looks back on becoming Carroll’s first wrestling state champion 50 years ago

Harry Owings qualified for the inaugural state wrestling tournament in 1970 and placed second in his weight class.

That meant a little more across the wrestling landscape back then, when far fewer postseason spots were up for grabs and all classifications competed against each other. Owings finished his junior season at Francis Scott Key High School with a flourish, and with one more year to go expectations were likely high for the Eagles’ top grappler.

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Owings did himself one better the following year when he won a state championship at 132 pounds. In doing so, the farm boy from New Windsor became the first Carroll County wrestler to be crowned a state champ.

The county has produced 98 state titles since the tournament’s inception, with several wrestlers winning multiple times. But Owings was the first, and 50 years later he holds fond, if not faded, memories of his varsity career at FSK.

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“It was good knowing that I did it for the school,” Owings said while enjoying a recent lunch in Westminster with his wife Nancy, who brought high school yearbooks and photographs dating back a half-century.

The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association held its state tournament in 1971 for the second time. Owings and teammate Dick Harbaugh competed for the Eagles, who placed sixth out of 77 teams according to a March 11, 1971 Times article.

This much is certain ― Owings defeated Tim Stewart of Churchill in the 132-pound final. Other details are fuzzy and conflicting when looking through record books and publications.

The MPSSAA’s site shows Owings winning the match 6-0 at what was then called Towson State College. Another site, mdhighschoolwrestling.com, has the final score listed as 6-3. The Times article went with a 7-0 decision.

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Owings doesn’t waste much time on specifics. The 68-year-old is more proud of how he got there.

“If it wasn’t for the team, I would have never made it because we wrestled each other,” Owings said. “For the state tournament, me and Dick were the only two in it but everybody stayed for practice ... We wrestled in practice, a lot of times you were wondering whether you were going to make it home or not after practice.”

The grueling workouts were more than enough to get Owings and Harbaugh prepared for whatever was coming at the state tournament level. FSK coach Peter McDowell ran a tough practice, Owings said, but there was a reason for it.

Francis Scott Key's Harry Owings, left, and Dick Harbaugh pose with hardware after competing in the 1971 state tournament.
Francis Scott Key's Harry Owings, left, and Dick Harbaugh pose with hardware after competing in the 1971 state tournament. (Courtesy Photo/Harry Owings)

“When I was practicing for [states], I had a different partner every period,” said Owings, who remembered sparring with teammates and coaches alike.

The Times article lists Owings as beating Valley High’s John Buckholtz, a district champion, 8-3 in his first state tourney match, then defeating Tom Friday of High Point, also a district champ, with a third-period pin.

Harbaugh finished fourth at heavyweight for FSK. Bill Finch of Westminster (second place, 138) also competed at the 1971 state tourney, according to the Times article.

Carroll didn’t produce another state champ for three years, but soon established itself as one of the top counties in the state ― at least one wrestler won a title every year from 1983-2017.

Nancy Owings, who has been with her husband since their high school days, described watching him wrestle as “nerve-wracking,” and recognized Francis Scott Key’s county wrestling stronghold from that era.

“When you get to the point where you keep winning and keep winning, you hate to see a loss,” she said.

Harry Owings helped start the FSK Jr. Eagles youth wrestling program, and stayed present in the wrestling community through the decades. His sons Brian and Tim wrestled at Francis Scott Key, as did nephew and two-time state champ Randy Owings. All the while, Harry Owings possessed a quiet, calm demeanor, one that stuck with Dave Dodson when he wrestled at Key in the 1980s.

Dodson, now the varsity coach at Manchester Valley, said he met Owings through him coaching Dodson’s younger sister in softball, then agreed to work with Owings during the wrestling offseason to stay sharp.

“No question, a good person. Worked hard,” said Dodson, a 1987 Francis Scott Key grad. “He was a farm kid, so taking that work ethic that you get to the mat bodes well, too. He’s pretty influential in his quiet way. His impact is felt. Having him around supporting us, the Key community and for me personally ... he didn’t have to do that.”

Owings can’t recall his four-year varsity career record, but feels pretty confident he won more than he lost. Only dual meets counted back then toward one’s record, Owings said, so he guessed he logged close to 40 official matches with the Eagles. There were holiday tournaments and postseason events, and Owings said FSK won the county tourney team title in each of his high school seasons.

Francis Scott Key High School graduate Harry Owings won a wrestling state title in 1971 -- the first to do so from Carroll County.
Francis Scott Key High School graduate Harry Owings won a wrestling state title in 1971 -- the first to do so from Carroll County. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

He reached a pinnacle, however, on March 6, 1971, on that second day of the second MPSSAA state tournament.

Nancy Owings said her husband’s state championship plaque usually stays in the attic at home, along with other mementos and memories from so many years ago. But they come to mind now and then, especially when milestones are reached.

“When they said that to me I said, ‘Well, they’ve got to wait a couple more years before it’s 50.’ But then I realized, my God, it is 50 years,” said Owings, who credits wrestling for shaping him into the man he is today.

“It taught you respect, which there is a lack of now,” he said. “I think it taught me that more than anything. It’s individual, but it’s also about the team. If you didn’t have your team there, it would be tough.”

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