Entering this weekend's state tournament at Western Maryland College, it seems recently that the road to a wrestling title usually went through Baltimore area programs.
The balance of power might have shifted slightly last year, with Northern of Calvert County winning the 3A-4A crown, 76.5-76, over Frederick, and Damascus of Montgomery County dethroning Northeast-AA, 93.5-93.
But before that the Baltimore area had a nine-year stranglehold on the 3A-4A title and had won the 1A-2A version six of the last seven times.
Since the tournament's inception in 1970, Baltimore area schools have won 24 of the 40-team crowns. Four of them came before 1980, when all teams competed in a unified tournament. Hereford (1970), Bel Air ('73), Westminster ('75) and Northeast-AA ('76) were team champs then.
"In the past, Baltimore's beltway programs were strong. It's been known as a tough area to compete against," said Damascus coach Dave Hopkins, a state champ at Richard Montgomery in 1972 and 1973.
"I've always respected and picked the brains of the Baltimore coaches who've had successful teams."
Early on, however, it was the other way around, said state wrestling committee director Ron Belinko.
"As a coach at Overlea, I modeled my programs after those dominant teams in Prince George's and Montgomery County in the early '70s," said Belinko, who has been involved with the state tournament since it began.
Of the 26 state champs last year, 16 were locals -- including 10 in the 1A-2A category. Eight of those titlists return, including 3A-4A champs Mark Chesla (152 pounds, 28-2) of Arundel and Mike Chenoweth (160, 28-1) of South Carroll.
On the 1A-2A side, Northeast's Kusick twins, Marty (112, 30-0) and Mike (119, 31-1), along with Francis Scott Key's Randy Owings (140, 31-1) are aiming for their third state titles. Southern-AA's Tyrone Neal (130, 31-0), Owings Mills' Steve Kessler (140, 32-0) and Francis Scott Key's Zac Yinger (145, 30-0) are trying for their second straight.
The area returns 16 wrestlers who finished among the state's top four last year.
Runners-up in the 3A-4A were Alex Leanos (130) of Dulaney, Nick Basta (135) of Old Mill and Adam Butts (171) of Meade, and in the 1A-2A, Tom Free (103) of Sparrows Point, and Bruce Pendles (125) and Hermondez Thompson (152) of Dunbar.
Severna Park's Jamie Kuch (125), Howard's Eric Paskin (145), Woodlawn's Mykol Thomas (152) and Old Mill's Don Patterson (189) were third in the 3A-4A, as were North Carroll's Tom Kiler (135) and Hereford's Roy Collins (189) in the 1A-2A.
Dundalk's Dan Simancek (119) and Lloyd Cox (140) of Lake Clifton were fourth on the 3A-4A side, as were Mike Young (119) of Sparrows Point and Tromaine Graves (171) of Southern-AA in 1A-2A.
Since the state tournament was separated into the 3A-4A and 1A-2A categories, area programs have taken 10 team crowns on each side.
In 3A-4A, Chesapeake-AA ('81), Arundel ('85), Westminster ('86), Eastern Tech ('87) and Broadneck ('88) were team champs before Old Mill won an unprecedented five straight from 1989-1993. Old Mill (72 points) was third last year.
"Our junior league coaches are sending kids to the programs with five or six years of experience," said Old Mill coach Mike Hampe, in his 21st season. "That makes the county competition very stiff, and nothing beats competition."
Several Baltimore area teams were champs on the 1A-2A side as well, with Centennial winning in '81, Oakland Mills, under Steve Carnahan, in '80, '81 and '86, and Aberdeen, under present coach Dick Slutzky, winning three straight from '88 to '90. Guy Pritzker's Owings Mills squads won in '91 and '92, and Northeast coach Al Kohlhafer won his second state crown in '93.
"A lot depends I think on the dynamics of the coaching personalities in the programs," said Slutzky, in his 23rd season. "But there's more equity with Damascus and Northern in there. Those programs are here to stay."