When he goes to bed at night, Arundel wrestler Isaac Haertel needs only to look skyward for motivation.
"Every night, there it is: The picture of me and Mike DiLeonardi up there on my ceiling, wrestling in the state finals last year," said Haertel, recalling an 8-6 overtime setback to the Old Mill wrestler. "It's a constant reminder. It's what drives me."
Haertel (14-1, 10 pins) is tied with Damascus' Randy Pickett at 152 pounds for the No. 3 ranking by the Maryland State Wrestling Association. His only loss this year came by 6-3 to DeMatha's No. 1 Robert Alexander, a defending National Prep champ.
Alexander also has a 4-3 victory over Pickett, who appears to be among Haertel's primary obstacles toward a goal of accomplishing what no other Arundel wrestler has: Placing in the states three times.
"Isaac has always shown a lot of guts, and he's one of the harder workers in practice," said coach Buddy Hepfer, whose No. 10 Wildcats are 10-2. "He's a team captain, along with Adam Sayani and Chad Webber, and I'd say his leadership is a big reason why we're wrestling with so much confidence and intensity."
Two years ago Haertel watched Mark Chesla become Arundel High's first undergraduate state champ. Last year, Chesla, now at Slippery Rock, became the school's first two-time champ.
But with 1 1/2 years left as a high school wrestler, Haertel (66-13 career) has a chance to surpass Chesla's milestone.
"Last year, I was on a mission. I wanted to make a name for myself," said Haertel, who with last Thursday's pin against Meade, completed his second straight unbeaten dual-meet season. "This year, I have even more to prove. I want to show that last year was no fluke."
His breakthrough match as a freshman came in the finals of Arundel's Holiday Invitational in an overtime, 4-3 victory over Dick Snuffer of Independence High.
It was the first of three holiday tournament titles for Haertel, who can become the event's first four-time winner.
But in the county tournament, Haertel dropped a two-point semifinal decision to Chesapeake's Rob Zittle, the eventual runner-up, and finished only third. He took a 22-5 record (11 pins) and No. 1 seeding into the regionals, where he went 0-2 for a disappointing end to his initial high school season.
"I just petered out, but I knew I was better than that," said Haertel, who began wrestling in fourth grade in Dallas, before moving to Crofton and wrestling three years in its junior league program.
As a sophomore, Haertel demonstrated his toughness, overcoming a 6-3 deficit for a 10-8 win over Gerald Bustamante of St. Benedict's, who was third in the previous National Preps. Haertel finished as a runner-up, however, by 10-4 to Alexander.
At the states, Haertel handed Frederick's John Harper (30-1) his first loss, 13-6, in the quarterfinals, before overcoming a 6-1 deficit to beat Perry Hall's Baltimore County champ Rich Hanzevack, 8-6, in overtime. In the latter, Haertel began a five-point throw with eight seconds left, nearly pinning Hanzevack at the regulation-ending buzzer.
"I was thinking, 'Oh my God, I'm in the finals,' " said Haertel, who had lost two three-point decisions to DiLeonardi and another by five points. "I told myself, 'This time, I'll beat him when it counts the most.' "
But he was second again to DiLeonardi (30-6), behind whom he had been runner-up in the county and region tournaments.
The photo of their last match may be be the motivational tool needed to get him over the top.
"The best thing about him is that he hates to lose," Hepfer said.