Hammond's wrestling team has been making big plans since the first day of practice two months ago.

The Golden Bears see themselves finally beating everyone's nemesis -- Oakland Mills -- and taking the county's dual meet title from the perennial-champion Scorpions. They envision a perfect dual-meet run against the county, capped off by a victory in next month's county tournament, which has also been Oakland Mills property over the years.

And the Bears are expecting, rather than hoping for, more successat the regional and state tournaments to follow.

If these things happen, the Golden Bears may look back on Saturday's tri-meet againstChopticon (St. Mary's County) and Liberty (Carroll County) as a pivotal moment in their season.

For the first time in this promising season, the Bears revealed a soft spot. In the first match of the day,Hammond dropped a 29-27 decision to Chopticon, thereby ruining a perfect season, another lofty Hammond expectation.

And did the Bears ever bounce back. After dwelling on their first defeat while Chopticon beat Liberty, the Bears hit the mat with a renewed chip on their shoulders against Liberty. Hammond proceeded to crush the Lions, 58-6, chalking up six pins and a technical fall for exclamation.

But it was obvious, even after the Bears disposed of Liberty in barely 30 minutes, that the Chopticon defeat had left a bitter taste in Hammond'smouth.

"I'm very disappointed. I thought it (the tri-meet) was a disaster," said Hammond coach Bill Smith. "We beat Chopticon by more than 100 points in the Douglass Tournament. Our kids really thought they could go undefeated. There were 13 kids crying in the back after that match."

Chris Mercurio, Hammond's tough 130-pounder -- he decisioned Chopticon's Ernie Sigman, 17-3, and pinned Liberty's Eddie Morrell -- recalled Hammond's soul-searching session with a few more details.

"After yelling at each other for about 10 minutes, we said we couldn't lie down against the next team," said Mercurio, who wrestled with a badly jammed thumb. "A few medical kits were damaged, and a few lockers were dented in the process. We felt like we were in some big pit and we had to get out of it. You saw what we did to Liberty."

The Bears trailed, 6-5, after three bouts against the Lions, before Hammond's talent and rage took over. Erin Woodward (125) startedthe avalanche with a pin to give Hammond an 11-6 lead. Mercurio madeit 17-6. A 4-0 victory by Chris Williams (135) and first-period pinsby Brian Magill (140) and Josh Stokes (145) made it 32-6.

All told, Hammond scored 53 unanswered points to conclude the meet on the highest of notes.

The Bears began their county dual meet season lastnight against Centennial (past the Howard County Sun's deadline) with renewed confidence. After all, they are 6-1, each of those victories coming by lopsided margins. They won the Douglass Tournament, then finished a strong fourth in the 17-team Lackey Tournament last month.

Boasting six wrestlers who already have won at least 10 matches and pinned at least half of their opponents -- Woodward, Mercurio, Stokes, Pat Brennan (189), Dan Proulx (103) and John Motley (112) -- Hammond might have its strongest team ever.

Two huge obstacles, however, stand between the Bears and validation.

Tuesday, the Bears travel to Oakland Mills for the most anticipated match of the season. Should they hand Coach Dan Ricker the first county loss of his four-year career, the Bears then would have to beat a talented Wilde Lake team two weeks later to secure a dual meet title. Then, of course, Hammond would have to repeat its success at the league tournament.

"We have to win both matches (Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake) to be legitimate," said Smith, who watched his highly touted Bears lose to both teams last year.

"We're a lot better from top to bottom than we've ever been. Very few holes," he added. "The difference between this team and other Hammond teams is this team expects to win. That's why they were in a state of shock after Chopticon."

Mercurio said, "We think we're the best team in the county this year, but it doesn't mean anything until we beat Oakland Mills. I'm excited. I've wrestled for four years on this team, and we've never had this much confidence. It's no joke anymore. I can't look in the eyes of any of my teammates and see doubts."

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