Century senior Sam Rothstein talks about rookie coach Steve Willingham and the the Knights' standout wrestlers. (Tom Worgo / Carroll County Times)
First-year coach Steve Willingham has laid down some well-documented expectations for his Century varsity wrestlers this season.
It's all in the contract.
Willingham required his wrestlers to sign one in the preseason.
In the agreement the wrestlers promise — among other things — to train hard, maintain a high grade-point average, and swear off drugs and alcohol.
Willingham, an assistant to former coach Dennis Frazier the past three seasons, said he has heard about coaches using similar contracts in other sports. But he's not aware of any such instances examples of the idea being put into practice in high school wrestling.
"I wanted the kids to take the season more seriously than maybe they have in the past," Willingham said. "I am real big on character development with the guys. Not only as wrestlers, but as members as society. Are they going to be dependable? How are going to train in the wrestling room? How are they going to behave with friends in society?"
So far, Willingham's rookie season is going just fine with no significant incidents other than some wrestlers missing practices.
Moreover, the Knights boast a 16-9 dual-meet record this season (4-2 in the county) with seniors Jack Akers (220 pounds, 19-0), Sam Rothstein (285, 24-0), Cody Davis (170, 24-2), and Brett Wardle (160, 25-2) leading the way.
All four standouts have legitimate shots at making noise in the postseason and earn potential championships.
"I think they all are going to place in the state," Willingham said. "I have nicknamed them the 'Four Horsemen' because these are my go-to guys. These are guys I really count on. You know you may forfeit weight classes and you are depending upon them to break even with making sure they get a pin."
The four wrestlers have helped fuel a close bond among the Knights' remaining team members.
The chemistry is tough to duplicate.
"The camaraderie of the guys is better than ever," Willingham said. "I think there is more a fraternity among everybody. I notice a real brotherhood among all the guys. My varsity guys are rooting for my JV guys just as much as my JV guys are rooting on the varsity guys."
Of Century's four "go-to guys," Rothstein will likely be in the spotlight the most for the remainder of this month. He boasts a 99-35 career record and can break the century mark when the Knights host Atholton in a dual-meet Thursday.
Rothstein went 34-7 last year at 220 and placed second in the county and third in the region.
As a sophomore, he placed second in the county and won 29 matches.
"He came in a freshman with no wrestling experience, but he had such a motivation and drive to excel," Willingham said. "And he's such a student of the sport."
No Century wrestler maybe enjoying his success this season more than Akers. Problems with fatigue limited him to a combined 25 matches during his sophomore and junior seasons. But he did post an 18-7 record.
Akers said he had to change his diet. Willingham was just thrilled to see him back in the lineup full-time.
"He's having a great season and he will finish the year strong," Willingham said. "He loves wrestling so much. He didn't want to give it up."
Willingham also continues to have high expectations for Davis and Wardle.
Davis placed fifth in the state last year and finished second in the region and third in the county.
Wardle has 15 pins and went 8-2 at the North Hagerstown Duals.
"Probably, who has caught my attention the most has been Wardle," Rothstein said. "He has done well the past couple of years, but this year he has really broken out. He has gotten stronger and has much better technique."
Century's lineup also features senior Nathan Haerbig (132, 13-13), freshman Stephen Hurst (106, 12-10) and sophomores Brendan Cline (120, 9-9) and Thomas Morey (182, 16-11) and juniors Dylan Fitzgerald (126, 14-2), Drew Micelli (138, 6-17), Nick Dahl (145, 16-12) and Kevin Pearson (152, 12-15).
Those wrestlers have probably gained respect for Willingham, who works as a school resource officer at Glenelg High. He has been a police officer in Howard County for 29 years.
"He emphasizes sportsmanship, hard work and dedication," Rothstein said. "He makes it very clear to us if we don't have the passion to win, then it's going to be a really hard season. It really has helped the team move forward."