Ryan Athey knew a strong showing in his first varsity wrestling season would likely put him on track to reach 100 career wins.
The South Carroll freshman didn’t care about any victories in the days leading up to his high school debut, however — Athey was simply focused on reaching 100 pounds.
He got there in time for the first day of practice, to the detriment of just about the rest of the state’s field at 106. Athey steamrolled the competition by posting 42 wins, earning county and regional tournament titles, and placing second at the Class 2A-1A state tourney in his first trip.
The Times Wrestler of the Year dealt with facing older, and many times heavier, opponents throughout the winter. But the freshman rarely showed his age or varsity inexperience. He lost only twice, both times against Mountain Ridge junior Jesse Fresh — by a combined two points.
The first came in late January, when South Carroll met the Miners in a tournament at Paint Branch High School. Fresh edged Athey 3-2 after the Cavaliers rookie had started the season 27-0. But Athey said the loss was a defining moment for him.
“I think it was a good thing. I had to work a bit harder,” Athey said. “I knew I was going face him [again] at some point. Either regionals or states. I worked a little bit harder, polished my technique a lot more.”
Athey, 15, a self-described mat rat, honed his youth wrestling skills with Francis Scott Key, Manchester, and the Columbia-based Warhawks. He placed second at the Maryland Junior Wrestling League championships as a sixth-grader, then won state titles the next two years.
Athey said making the move to varsity, and being successful, hinged on one thing.
“The biggest jump was probably how much more important the technique was, with wrestling older guys and stuff,” he said. “I spent a lot of time on technique, extra practices outside of school. Working after practice, being the first guy in the room and the last guy out of the room.”
Athey didn’t let the tournament loss to Fresh linger. He cruised into the postseason — SC coach Matt Thomas said his freshman compiled seven wins against opponents ranked in the top 25 by the Maryland State Wrestling Association — and won a county tournament crown before getting a rematch with Fresh in the 2A-1A West finals. Fresh was ranked second at 106 that week among 2A-1A grapplers; Athey was fifth.
But even when Fresh led 3-0, Athey said he wasn’t worried.
“I was fine with it,” he said. “I knew I could wear him down, especially after the first match. Once I tied the score up I knew I was going to win the match in overtime.”
Athey forced OT and won 5-3 with a takedown in the extra period. The freshman said his dedication to working on his technique throughout the winter paid off in that bout.
“I feel like you win a lot of matches on your feet,” Athey said. “Once you get that first takedown, you start the momentum. I feel like once I get the first takedown, pretty much, I get my stuff rolling from there.”
The rivals met one more time, in the state final. The momentum didn’t last for Athey, however – Fresh (34-4) used an escape in the second period to score first, then held off Athey the rest of the way to win 1-0.
Thomas said Athey knew, almost right away, what needed to be done in order to get better and avoid any more disappointment at the highest level.
“When he walked off the mat [at states] he looked at me and he knew … ‘We just fell a little bit short,’” Thomas said. “We talked for about an hour on the ride home about moving on and what we did wrong, and how we’re going to improve from here on out.”
For Athey, that means a summer devoted to tournament action. Athey said he plans on adding some weight before next season comes, and he’ll maintain his workout regimen to stay sharp.
Thomas seemingly can’t wait to get back at it to see how much his standout can improve — Athey set South Carroll freshman record for wins, his coach said, which impressed Thomas given the Cavs’ rich wrestling tradition.