The standard for Maryland public school wrestling doesn't reside far from the Howard County line.
About five miles from the western county border is Damascus, a small rural town with a high school program that has won 127 straight dual meets — the eighth longest winning streak of all-time, according to the National Federation of State High School Association's record book. The Hornets have captured the last three 3A/4A state tournament titles and five straight 3A/4A state dual championships, the most recent with a 47-18 victory over Glenelg in February.
They aren't going anywhere anytime soon, and the Hornets expect to continue to climb in the record book (they are 29 wins shy of the third-longest streak ever). But 16 miles to the east, the Gladiators and coach Matt Bichner aren't shying away.
With what he says is his best team in his five years as head coach, he wants another shot at ending the streak.
"I think they're a great example," Bichner said. "I have a lot of respect for their coaches and their kids work hard. They don't do anything flashy — they just do the fundamentals and they get it done, and it's a lot of the similarities we try to instill.
"There's no animosity toward them, we just want to beat them. They're the pinnacle, everyone is trying to knock them off, and they've won five years in a row and haven't lost a match. Obviously last year we felt we were the second-best team dual-wise in the state and we feel like we're pretty close to there, so we're looking to pass them and hand them their first loss if possible."
The Gladiators return six of their seven county champions from last season. Three returners placed among the top four in their weight class at the state tournament, and five other starters, including county finalist Robbie Baxter (220 pounds), are also in this year's lineup.
A logjam among their upper weights has worked itself out through the offseason, as a group of experienced freshmen and a healthy, athletic heavyweight in Cory Willson will fill the holes. It's a recipe that has Bichner excited about this squad's potential.
"We have a lot of talent and we're still pretty young, even this year," he said. "The guys who are juniors and seniors have been starters for two, three years, and they work hard and kind of know the expectation. I think they lead by example and push the new guys, and that's been helping us get guys to come in and contribute. I definitely think it's one of the best all-around teams we've had in a long time, so I'm pretty excited about it."
Their six county champions — seniors Logan Gwin (expected 113 pounds) and Max Sotka (170), and juniors Kevin Hansberger (120), Jared Thomas (132/138), Jacob Jones (160) and Sam Alsheimer (182/195) — should all be in the mix for not only league championships, but regional and state titles.
Sotka is fresh off an appearance in the 160-pound state final and a 45-4 record as a junior, while Thomas finished 44-2 and took third at 126 pounds.
Alsheimer will likely miss the first month of the season, if not more, after breaking his leg on the gridiron Sept. 2 but will return after going 44-6 and finishing fourth at the state tournament at 182 pounds a year ago.
Despite the fact Glenelg has gone 55-5 overall and 22-0 in county over the last two years and 75-14 overall and 32-1 in the league in the last three, Bichner hasn't had a state champion in his tenure as head coach. Heavyweight Sean Twigg was the last Gladiators state champion in 2013, and Bichner thinks this could be the year to end that drought.
Highlights from the MPSSAA wrestling state tournament finals at the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro on March 4, 2017. (Tim Schwartz/Baltimore Sun video)
"It would be great to see Max do it because I know how much work he puts in, he works hard and he is by no shot the most athletic kid out there, but he outworks a lot of kids," he said. "Seeing the athleticism Jared has, it's fun to watch him, and Sam is the same thing. He's kind of a bull, a workhorse and has that athleticism. Same with Jacob Jones, Kevin Hansberger, Logan Gwin — they're tough, hard-nosed kids who have been doing it a long time, so to see them finally get up there in the spotlight and get it done would be awesome. Hopefully we can get four or five more names on the wall this year."
While Glenelg has the biggest target on its back entering the season, there are several teams that have the potential to give the Gladiators a run.
Oakland Mills has gone 10-1 in county and finished behind Glenelg each of the past two years, and it has a few state-championship caliber wrestlers to pair with some young guys stepping into varsity roles.
Junior county finalist Aaron Smith (195) and senior Ben Goldfein, who placed fourth at the 1A/2A state tournament last season, are postseason contenders alongside three-time state finalist Kyle Farace. Scorpions coach Brad Howell said his senior leader looks sharp as he builds toward his goal of finally becoming a state champion.
"I think Kyle's mental state is right where it needs to be right now," he said. "I don't think he is focused on the end result. Your best chance to be most successful is when you focus in on the moment and train to continue to improve, and that's where he's at right now. He's just trying to get better."
Atholton grabbed the attention of the league at last year's county tournament when it tied Oakland Mills for second place. The Raiders were young last season and only have three seniors this year. Senior county champion Miles Easterling (220), two-time county finalist junior Sean Billups (170), and 2016 county finalists junior Drew Pruett (113) and junior Derek Noppinger (132) are expected to lead Atholton toward the top of the county standings.
Mt. Hebron, which went 9-2 in county last winter, has 11 starters back, including four who placed among the top four at the county tournament. Senior Nick Nordhausen (220), who placed fourth at the state tournament, is expected to be in the mix for a state title after going 39-6 last year, while senior Yahir Lemus (120/126) is back after finishing sixth in the state.
Marriotts Ridge returns two state place-winners in senior Justin Hooper (170/182), who placed sixth in the state, and sophomore Will Vaxmonsky (132/138), who took fourth and went 44-5 last year. Sophomore Ethan Bohan and junior regional champion Austin Cestone also return after winning 43 and 38 matches, respectively, a year ago.
Centennial has a young team but has the best wrestler in the county in junior Jason Kraisser, the 2016-17 Howard County Times Wrestler of the Year.
The two-time state champion became an All-American in July by placing eighth in junior freestyle at the junior national championships, and he enters the season with a career record of 80-4 and is ranked No. 10 in the country at 145 pounds by Flowrestling.
Hammond continues to trend in the right direction under third-year coach William Yeo. The Golden Bears have three JV county champions or finalists, as well as five regional qualifiers back.
"All of them have been working throughout the offseason and are looking to get over that hump and earn a podium spot at the state tournament," Yeo said.
There are several statewide changes that will have an impact on this year's postseason. The Executive Council and Board of Control of the MPSSAA both voted and approved in April proposed changes made by the state wrestling tournament committee. The changes increase the dual meet state tournament from two teams (1A/2A and 3A/4A) to four, giving each classification its own dual meet state tournament.
With the change, however, was another decision to discontinue the awarding of a team champion at both individual state tournaments at the end of the season. Scoring at the regional tournaments was also eliminated.
There is no change to the system for individuals qualifying for the individual state tournament, and the individual regional tournaments will remain the same — four regions in both 1A/2A and 3A/4A.
The consensus among county coaches is that the four dual meet state tournaments is a positive change, but a few are disappointed about eliminating scoring at the individual state tournament.
"Some teams are simply better suited to be tournament teams, and now winning an individual team tournament is out the door," Yeo said.
In terms of regional realignment, Oakland Mills and Marriotts Ridge, which were the only county schools in 2A the last few years, will have new company in the south region. Glenelg, Hammond, River Hill and Wilde Lake have moved from 3A East to 2A South. Atholton, Centennial, Long Reach, Mt. Hebron and Reservoir remain in 3A East, while Howard is still in 4A North.
The changes mean Oakland Mills and Glenelg, which have won regional dual titles in the last two years, will likely have to get through each other, among others, to represent the 2A South region at the state dual tournament.
Out of the eight final four teams from last year's state dual tournament, seven now reside in 2A.
"The realignment is very interesting because of how tough the 2A states just became," said Oakland Mills coach Brad Howell. "It is a meaty tournament, and I don't think there is anybody that will argue that there is a tougher tournament than the 2A state tournament this year."
Highlights from all 14 Howard County wrestling tournament championship matches on Feb. 18, 2017. (Tim Schwartz/Baltimore Sun video)
Around the mats
Here's a closer look at the 13 Howard County wrestling programs:
2016-17 record: 6-5 county, 10-7 overall, second (tied) at county tournament
Coach: Bruce Lindblad, seventh season (22nd overall)
Top wrestlers: Seniors Michael Altamarnio (138 pounds), Stephen Frazier (145) and Miles Easterling (220); juniors Drew Pruett (113), Derek Noppinger (132) and Sean Billups (170).
Nonleague duals: at Tuscarora (Dec. 9), vs. Century (Dec. 21), at Westminster (Jan. 20).
Tournaments: Joppatowne Duals (Dec. 15-16), Winters Mill tournament (Jan. 5-6), Grapple at the Brook (Jan. 12-13).
2016-17 record: 5-6, 5-9, ninth
Coach: Cliff Kraisser, fifth season
Top wrestlers: Seniors Jacob Blyukher (138/145) and Lucas Shapiro (182); junior Jason Kraisser (145/152).
Nonleague duals: vs. Glenelg Country (Dec. 7), at Winters Mill (Dec. 21), vs. Springbrook (Jan. 18).
Tournaments: Mount Mat Madness (Dec. 29-30), Battlin' Barons Duals (Jan. 5-6), Franklin Tournament (Jan. 12-13).