If you build it, they will come.
While that may be a baseball reference, it's fitting for how Oakland Mills wrestling coach Brad Howell sees the growth of his program over the last 17 years.
After consistently being one of the top teams in the county and region, Howell and the Scorpions finally broke through last year by going 11-0 in county, 24-2 overall and winning their first ever 1A/2A state dual-meet championship.
"The process really started about 14 years ago, when we really started getting to what we want to embed. The mentality I have is always to get a little better somewhere," Howell says. "We always look to gain somewhere. I think that mentality of not trying to be the best program in the state right away and building a foundation was important. That helped us, and I really think the key concept of the program has been to build those relationships with everyone involved. That's been important to us and has made a big difference."
But for the first time with Howell at the reigns, Oakland Mills looks to be the definitive team to beat in Howard County this season and will undoubtedly have the biggest target on its back, despite the loss of eight graduated seniors.
Howell isn't worried about what's going outside of his program, though. He is just focused on "getting better and building character."
"I don't think anybody is thinking about last year and trying to repeat," he added. "We weren't talking about it last year and we aren't this year. Our motto is about getting better, not winning or losing. Maybe as a young coach I thought about winning, but I believe in doing all the right stuff as a person, being a man, and those things will come."
It's hard not to notice how many fresh faces will be in the varsity lineup for Oakland Mills this season, though. No longer stepping on the mat is last year's Wrestler of the Year Jaron Smith, who won two state titles and was a perfect 42-0 on the mat as a senior, or Sidique Furet, who won a county, region and state title a year ago.
Howell, however, doesn't think his team is in any rebuilding mode. In fact, he thinks this year's team might be better than the one that didn't lose after the first weekend of the season.
"When you graduate a bunch of guys, you think, 'Oh, we have all these holes,' but really our JV was loading up fast last year and we had a bunch of those guys wrestling all year in Freestyle and Greco-Roman," he says.
Just as important as the incoming talent is the leadership that has been passed down from guys like Smith and Matt Claxton to current wrestlers Johnny Rynn, Kyle Farace and Justin Gatewood.
"Leadership-wise we've had guys stepping up. The seniors from last year have passed down the torch, and they left behind a legacy to these guys," Howell says. "They affected the guys behind them, and sent a message to these guys — what are they going to say when you leave here? What are guys going to remember about you? They're already staying after practice and working with other guys. It's a chain reaction."
Rynn, a junior, and senior Dakota Thompson are back after winning county championships at 113 and 120 pounds, respectively. Farace is a year removed from being in the state championship match as a freshman at 106 pounds, and Gatewood was a solid contributor to the team last winter and finished fifth at the county tournament.
"We've got a lot of confidence," Rynn says. "We don't really talk about [last year] that much. We just focus on our goal this year, and that's to win states again. We've been putting in work in the offseason. ... Expectations are really high."
First, Oakland Mills will need to get through a county loaded full of talent and experience.
River Hill lost state champion Brady Daniel, who transferred to Good Counsel, but returns one of the county's two state champions in senior Matt Shealy, who won a 3A/4A state title at 106 pounds last year. Sean Guthier, who went 41-5 last winter, won a county title and placed sixth in the state at 160 pounds, returns as well.
"Expectations this year are similar to last year — to push myself as hard as I can," Shealy says. "I really learned how to do that last year, how to push myself to my limits and being able to wrestle better each match because of that. Winning states was one of the best experiences of my life. It made me look at things differently, seeing what I can do and how far I can push myself."
Glenelg lost its top two wrestlers in Austin Twigg and Mike Budock, but county-champion Parker Griffie and county finalist Jamie Cooch are back to help the Gladiators keep pace among the county's elite.
Reservoir returns some of the best talent in the county, including county finalists Todd Del Tufo and Shawn Hamilton. Mt. Hebron, which will be led by state place-winner Jimmy Hayden, and Marriotts Ridge, which returns region champion Chris Spano, will be right there as well.
Centennial welcomes a fourth Kraisser brother, Jason, to the program, and Austin Kraisser will be looking to win his third state title this season and carries some lofty goals.
"I just want to make my mark this year. Not to be mean, but I want to destroy my competition," Kraisser says. "I want to pin and tech-fall everyone. I don't want anyone to take me down in a match, and I don't want anybody to take me down in practice. I don't want anyone to hold me down for more than 10-15 seconds on bottom in any match. I just want to break my opponents mentally."
For the first time in River Hill wrestling history, there will be no Lauer coaching behind the benches. Brandon Lauer, who coached the Hawks for nine seasons after taking over for his father, Earl, in 2006, relinquished his position to become Athletics and Activities Manager at River Hill.
Seven wrestlers won state titles under Brandon Lauer, who is in the Maryland Wrestling Hall of Fame and led the Hawks to a state tournament championship in 2012, six region titles and five county titles.
Kevin Cannon, who has coached under Lauer for the last eight seasons, is River Hill's new coach.
Cannon was a four-year varsity wrestler and two-time county champion at River Hill and graduated in 2004. He grew up wrestling under Earl Lauer for the Howard County wrestling league, the Vipers, and eventually for the Hawks before coming back to the school to coach under Brandon Lauer.
"I was on the first Howard County team, then two years later I was on the first Vipers team, so I kind of got dragged along the development of wrestling in Howard County," Cannon said. "Brandon kind of took me under his wing. I'm excited to be the coach because I know the program. ... My expectation this year is to continue our values, our morals, our rules, our training program, and that usually leads to winning."
Also taking over for a coach who led his team to a state title is William Yeo at Hammond, who is replacing Bill Smith.
Hammond has only won five county duals combined in the last two seasons, but Yeo hopes his experience as a college wrestler at McDaniel and assistant coach at Westminster High School will help turn the program back to what it was when he was in high school a decade ago.
"When I got a job in Howard County, I sort of had a pick of schools and the reason I wanted to come to Hammond was because of the administration team here, and because when I was in high school Hammond was back-to-back state champions and always had a big showing at regionals and state tournaments," Yeo said. "Anywhere they went, they had a big following. I feel a sense of duty to restore the program to what it was."
Daniel Harman is the new varsity coach at Mt. Hebron after Todd DeCrispino retired after coaching the Vikings and at Centennial for 26 straight seasons.
Harman coached the JV team at Mt. Hebron for the last seven years.
Pat Kepp takes over for Shea Conway at Howard. Kepp coached the Lions two seasons ago.
Around the mats
Here's a snapshot look around the county as the season gets underway:
2014-15 record: 3-8 county, 8-23 overall, ninth at county tournament
Coach: Bruce Lindblad, fifth season (20th overall)
Top wrestlers: Seniors Willie Hampton (120 pounds) and Jamyrie Jones (170); juniors Cito Altamirano (132) and Joe Lazzier (195); sophomore Stephen Frazier (126)
Tournaments: Joppatowne Duals (Dec. 11-12); South River Duals (Dec. 29-30); Grapple at the Brook (Jan. 15-16)
Outlook: In 2013-14, Atholton struggled through the season en route to a 2-9 county record and an 11th place finish at the county tournament. Last year, however, the Raiders started the turnaround, though the three county victories may not prove just how much they improved.
Now with returning county finalists Willie Hampton and Jahmyrie Jones back in the fold, look for Atholton to make a push into the middle tier of the county standings this season. Hampton was a region finalist who won a match at the state tournament, Stephen Fraizer returns after a solid freshman campaign, and Cito Altamirano and Joe Lazzier were solid contributors to the team a year ago. The Raiders also bring in several wrestlers with junior league experience and have nearly 40 wrestlers in the room, the most coach Bruce Lindblad has had in several years.
2014-15 record: 5-6, 12-9, sixth
Coach: Cliff Kraisser, third season
Top wrestlers: Seniors Austin Kraisser* (160) and Cameron Neilon (113); juniors Amr Narmouq (152) and Ammar Narmouq (145); sophomore Jacob Blyukher (120); freshman Jason Kraisser (132)
Tournaments: LaPlata Duals (Dec. 18-19); Mount Mat Madness (Dec. 28-29); Franklin Tournament (Jan. 15-16)
Outlook: Centennial has been on the upswing for several seasons now, thanks in large part to the domination and team points collected by two-time state champion Austin Kraisser. Now, though, the talent is starting to fill out around Kraisser, including several county and region place-winners.
Jacob Blyukher finished fourth in the county's toughest weight class last season and made a strong push to finish third in the region behind two state finalists. Cameron Neilon was a third-place finisher at the county tournament, and brothers Amr and Ammar Narmouq have been steady varsity contributors. Freshman Jason Kraisser, the fourth Kraisser brother to put on an Eagles singlet, is a potential state place-winner who has a very bright future. Austin Kraisser needs 37 wins to tie his brother Nathan with 152 wins.
2014-15 record: 10-1, 20-9, third
Coach: Matt Bichner, third season
Top wrestlers: Seniors Sam Kraus (132/138), Collin Silk (132/138), Parker Griffie* (145/152) and Jamie Cooch (heavyweight); junior Garrett Murray (152); sophomore Max Sotka (152/160)
Tournaments: Bauerlein Duals (Dec. 11-12); Mount Mat Madness (Dec. 28-29); Cavalier Duals (Jan. 15-16)
Outlook: If there's one thing that you can always count on in Howard County wrestling, it's that Glenelg will be in the mix for a county championship. The Gladiators were 10-0 in county entering their final match against Oakland Mills last winter before falling short, but they were the only other county team to qualify for region duals.
This season, the Gladiators return county champion and state qualifier Parker Griffie, as well as county finalist Jamie Cooch and third-place county finishers Max Sotka and Collin Silk. Glenelg is expected to be near the top of the county standings when it's all said and done, considering the junior league experience of its young wrestlers and the growth it shows throughout each season.
Hammond Golden Bears
2014-15 record: 2-9, 2-12, 10th
Coach: William Yeo, first season
Top wrestlers: Senior Osman Ali (126/132); juniors Clinton Azagba (160/170) and Nasim Sanders (170/182); sophomore Cale McMurdy (138/145)
Tournaments: Walkersville Duals (Dec. 4-5); Oakdale Tournament (Dec. 11-12); Winters Mill Invitational (Jan. 8-9)
Outlook: It's been a rough few years for Hammond, as it has won a combined five matches in county duals and overall the last two seasons. But with a fresh face at the helm – William Yeo – the Golden Bears are looking to turn back the clocks and get back on top of the county and state.
With 30 wrestlers in the room and a very young core returning, the building process will begin this year. Yeo notes several wrestlers spent some time on the mats in the summer, which helped the young varsity grapplers gain experience heading into the winter. While it will take years for the foundation to be built again, Yeo knows it will be important for the young squad to keep a strong work ethic.
2014-15 record: 4-7, 8-12, eighth
Coach: Pat Kepp, first season (fourth overall)
Top wrestlers: Senior Ben Massey (182); juniors Kyle Williamson (138) and Darian Kassiri (145)
Tournaments: Mad Mats Tournament (Dec. 11-12); Best of the Nest Duals (Jan. 15-16); Severna Park Tournament (Jan. 22-23)
Outlook: Howard has changed coaches each of the past three seasons, but Pat Kepp returns as coach with experience at the program and with a solid core of talented wrestlers. With the help of football coach Bruce Strunk, Kepp has almost 30 wrestlers in the room, many of whom are football players ready to make an impact on the varsity level.
Darian Kassiri returns after being a county finalist each of the last two seasons and looks poised for a breakthrough year, and Ben Massey and Kyle Williamson return with extensive varsity experience. A talented freshman class will also likely help the Lions improve from four-win county seasons each of the last two years.
Long Reach Lightning
2014-15 record: 0-11, 4-17, 11th
Coach: Matt Bogusz, third season
Top wrestlers: Senior Phil Watters (220/heavyweight); juniors Nick Epstein (126) and Garrett Bowman (145/152)
Tournaments: Francis Scott Key Tournament (Dec. 26); Randallstown Tournament (Jan. 8-9); Grapple at the Brook (Jan. 15-16)
Outlook: While failing to win a county dual in any of the last three seasons, coach Matt Bogusz has seen a change in mentality from year's past. The Lightning have won nine duals in the last two seasons, and this year is likely to result in even more.
Matt Gilbert graduated, but junior Nick Epstein returns with aspirations of qualifying for the state tournament. There are nearly 25 wrestlers in the room at Long Reach, the most in Bogusz's three years, and there's potential to fill all 14 varsity weight classes for the first time in recent memory. Garrett Bowman and Phil Watters join Epstein as guys who spent the summer on the mat and have high goals set.
Marriotts Ridge Mustangs
2014-15 record: 7-4, 18-7, fourth
Coach: Jason Conley, 11th season (20th overall)
Top wrestlers: Seniors Romtin Habibi (132), Jacob Heejebu (106), Michael Hurd (170) and Thomas Olson (152); junior Chris Spano (113)
Tournaments: Walkersville Duals (Dec. 4-5); Loch Raven Duals (Jan. 8-9); Severna Park Tournament (Jan. 22-23)
Outlook: Each of the last several seasons, expectations at Marriotts Ridge have been to break through from the middle-top tier and into county title contention. Safe to say this could be the year the Mustangs get that done.
Romtin Habibi, Jacob Heejebu and Michael Hurd return for their senior seasons with expectations of potentially winning a county title, while junior Chris Spano is back after placing third in the state as a sophomore and has his eyes set on standing atop the podium at the state tournament. If Marriotts Ridge can stay healthy and grow throughout the season, it will be a tough team to face.
2014-15 record: 8-3, 15-5, seventh
Coach: Daniel Harman, first season
Top wrestlers: Senior Eloy Flores (145/152); juniors Jimmy Hayden (132/138) and Nicholas Nordhausen (220); sophomore Yahir Lemus (113/120)
Tournaments: North County Duals (Dec. 11-12); Franklin Tournament (Jan. 15-16); Severna Park Tournament (Jan. 22-23)
Outlook: It was a breakthrough of sorts for Mt. Hebron last year, as the Vikings won eight county duals despite the loss of senior Connor Strunk to injury in early January. This year, however, Mt. Hebron will need to replace perhaps the school's best-ever wrestler in Jeff Hayden.
Brother Jimmy Hayden likely has the best chance at doing what his brother fell just short of – winning a state title. Jimmy Hayden returns after finishing second in the county and region, and placed sixth in the state. Transfer Nick Nordhausen joins returners Yahir Lemus and Eloy Flores, making the Vikings one of the top teams in the county once again under first-year coach Dan Harman.
Oakland Mills Scorpions
2014-15 record: 11-0, 24-2, first
Coach: Brad Howell, 18th season
Top wrestlers: Seniors Justin Gatewood (132) and Dakota Thompson* (126); junior Johnny Rynn* (120); sophomore Kyle Farace (113)
Tournaments: Scorpion Duals (Dec. 4-5); Smyrna Invitational (Jan. 8-9); Overlea Invitational (Jan. 29-30)
Outlook: A year after taking the county by storm and dominating its way to an 11-0 county record, Oakland Mills looks like the team to beat once again. Losing eight seniors from last year's varsity lineup will be tough to overcome, but the Scorpions had a loaded JV squad that has been prepped to step up at the next level.
Kyle Farace was a region and state finalist a year ago and looks to be a strong contender for a state title, while senior county and regional champion Dakota Thompson will aim to be a force in the lineup. Johnny Rynn, a county champion, region finalist and state place-winner, hopes to turn his summer chalked full of mat time into a state title.
2014-15 record: 6-5, 8-6, fifth
Coach: Andy McIntyre, sixth season
Top wrestlers: Seniors Dalton Kleinhen (120), AJ Strott (195) and Shawn Hamilton (220); sophomores Reese Kilcarr (106) and Todd Del Tufo (145)
Tournaments: Bear Cave Crawl (Dec. 11-12); Cougar Claus (Dec. 30-31); Grapple at the Brook (Jan. 15-16)
Outlook: Reservoir has been one of the top teams in the county for the good part of a decade now, but had a down year last winter, winning only six county duals. Now, the Gators will need to replace twins Trent and Troy Kilcarr, both of whom were varsity mainstays for several seasons.
The Gators have a chance to take a big step this season, though, behind a trio of seniors – Dalton Kleinhen, AJ Strott and Shawn Hamilton. Kleinhen is a county champion contender, while Hamilton will look to build upon being a county finalist last year. Strott is back after missing the majority of last season with an injury, and Todd Del Tufo returns after being a county and region finalist as a freshman.
2014-15 record: 9-2, 23-6, second
Coach: Kevin Cannon, first season
Top wrestlers: Seniors Matt Shealy* (113), Sean Guthier* (170) and Nathan Dustin (152); junior Maumoud Alensary (160); sophomore Brett Schwab (220)
Tournaments: South River Duals (Dec. 29-30); Rebel Duals (Jan. 15-16); Battle at the Bay (Jan. 22-23)
Outlook: It's a whole new look for the River Hill program this season. Coach Brandon Lauer is no longer the Hawks' coach, the first time a Lauer hasn't been at the helm since the school opened in 1996.
Kevin Cannon, a long-time right-hand man of Lauer's, takes over at River Hill and still has the talent to compete for a county title. Matt Shealy is back as a two-time county champion and one of only two wrestlers in the county to return after winning a state title last year, while Sean Guthier will look to build on a year where he won a county title and placed at the state tournament. The loss of state champion Brady Daniel because of transfer is a tough blow, but expect the Hawks to be one of the teams to beat this winter.
Wilde Lake Wildecats
2014-15 record: 1-10, 2-27, 12th
Coach: Nick Sylor, second season
Top wrestlers: Seniors Taylor Brosnan (195), Ed Yun (145), Amenu McGruder (152) and DJ Cornelius (170); junior Ayan Kazi (132)
Tournaments: Keaser Classic (Dec. 11-12); Randallstown Tournament (Jan. 8-9); Pit Panther Invitational (Jan. 22-23)
Outlook: Wilde Lake was in full rebuilding mode last year under new coach Nick Sylor, and Sylor admits the Wildecats are still in the midst of that process. However, the long-term future of the program looks good when you consider there are 15 freshmen and sophomores on the team this season.
Senior Taylor Brosnan is Wilde Lake's top returning wrestler after placing sixth at the county tournament a year ago, while Amenu McGruber, Ed Yun and Ayan Kazi return with plenty of varsity experience. DJ Cornelius, a transfer from Virginia Beach, Va., could also make a strong impact for a young Wildecats team.
2014-15 record: 5-1 MIAA B, 14-1, third MIS B tournament
Coach: Doug Jesse, third season
Top wrestlers: Seniors Reid Chaconas (182) and Demetrius Ravenell (195); juniors B.J. Borowski (145/152) and Raj Malviya (106/113)
Tournaments: Andy Perez Memorial Tournament (Dec. 4-5); Covenant Life Tournament (Jan. 9); Battle at the Bay (Jan. 22-23)
Outlook: Glenelg Country has been a team on the rise in the MIAA B Conference for several seasons, and with a solid core of talented wrestlers this could be the year the Dragons get over the top and win the conference title.