After years of trying to become the No. 1 Howard County wrestling squad, Hammond finally is solidly on top.
But after years of chasing Oakland Mills, Bears coach Bill Smith says it sounds strange to hear other coaches speak of his team as the one to beat.
Hammond (13-1, 7-0) won both the county dual-meet and tournament titles last season -- the first tournament title in school history. The Bears also finished second in the region and 10th in the state.
And the Bears return 11 wrestlers, at least 10 of whom will start this season. Nine of those 11 are seniors.
The nucleus of the team will be John Motley, Dan Proulx, Chris Williams and Mike Chang, all four of whom wrestled at national levels this past summer. Motley and Proulx competed in the junior nationals.
Motley, a county champ last season, is a team captain and inspirational leader who will wrestle at 130. The senior's marquee move is his headlock.
Williams, who did not wrestle last season, was county champion two years ago. The 152-pound senior bench-presses 300 pounds and his athleticism wows fans.
Proulx, a 140-pound senior, is a co-captain who finished second in the county last season. "He leads by example," Smith said. "He works hard, does the extra things and is driven."
Chang, third in the county last season, is a 112-pound junior who works best from the bottom and scores a lot off Gramby rolls.
Brian Law, a 135-pound senior, also finished third in the county.
"He's always upbeat -- a coach's dream," Smith said.
Jim Weston looks good at 189 pounds. The junior finished third in the county and has lots of power to go with the confidence he developedduring the football season.
Pedro Barbosa, a senior heavyweight, was the junior-varsity champion and looks good. Other returnees include senior Amit Kapoor (103), senior Ryan Armstrong (125), senior Bryce Armstrong (145) and senior Chris Parker (125-145).
Freshman Josh Zillmer brings a lot of talent to the program. The 119-pounder finished second in the South Carolina junior leagues tournament last season. "He's the best freshman I've ever had," Smith said.
Senior Bill Midkiff will wrestle at 171. He won a JV championship last season.
"We're better on our feet this season and we have good depth in the lower weight classes," Smith said.
"We'll be very good, but you can never overlook Oakland Mills or Wilde Lake. I would hope we'd be the favorite to win again this year."
Hammond has added perennial power Lackey to the regular-season schedule. Lackey is in the same region as the Bears, so the Dec. 14 match at Hammond should tell a lot about the Bears' playoff chances.