A lock on winning Wrestler: Owings Mills' Steve Kessler is as close to a sure bet as it gets, with three state titles and an unequaled 115-0 record.


Other wrestlers are stronger, more imposing, able to dish out more punishment. Others strike more fear into opponents with pinning maneuvers such as headlocks, bearhugs or gut-wrenches.

But precious few can create minute openings in opponents' defenses, then slice through them with laser-like accuracy and maximum results. Nor can many take advantage of an opponent's momentum and work the angles -- at least, not like Steve Kessler.

"When I wrestle, I feel like there's a move or hold that'll work from any position. Like I can do 10 different moves from any situation I'm in," said Kessler, 17, a 152-pound Owings Mills High senior.

Kessler, who has the sleek, sturdy torso of a swimmer, is 6-0 this season and 115-0 for his career, a state record. He also has 49 pins and 39 technical falls.

"Depending on who I'm wrestling, I'll experiment with a lot of different things," Kessler said. "Sometimes, I'll force the action, get him to commit to something. Then I'll adapt, counter, be offensive or defensive, depending on their style, height or strength. If they make a mistake, I'm going to catch it."

ESPN filmed Kessler's record-breaking victory Dec. 14 -- a 17-second pin in the first round of the Hereford Invitational for his 111th career win. The state record of 110-0 had belonged to 1984 Bullis graduate Lenny Bernstein, an All-American at the University of North Carolina who now is wrestling coach at the University of Virginia.

"People probably have an image that Steve's afraid to lose. A loss would be devastating, but not that big a deal," said Owings Mills coach Guy Pritzker, whose Eagles have won four 1A-2A state titles.

"Steve's resilient. He's wrestled sick, hurt, injured. He's disappointed when he gets a relative newcomer or a forfeit. He wants every match to be a test."

Ron Belinko, Baltimore County's coordinator of athletics, coached wrestling for 27 years at Overlea and Eastern Tech. He said he has never seen talent like Kessler's.

"Steve's got an awareness only present in the great ones," Belinko said. "If the headlock's not working, some guys try to force it. Steve uses his opponent's momentum to make it look effortless."

As a sophomore, Chris Schneck of C. Milton Wright did what no other Maryland wrestler has been able to do: He put Kessler on his back.

"I didn't know who he was until I came off the match after losing. My coach told me he was No. 1 in the state," said Schneck, a 152-pound senior and last year's 3A-4A state runner-up. "I just wish now that I had pinned him."

Kessler has been ranked No. 1 in Maryland since his freshman season, when he wrestled at 130 pounds, though he weighed scarcely more than 125. He became the state's first ninth-grader to go unbeaten (36-0) and win a state title. In the title bout, Kessler came back from a 4-1 deficit to beat Northeast senior Matt Jewer, who had dropped from 135 pounds and was 29-2 with 19 pins.

"Freshmen usually don't have that kind of success at 130, where there's older, more mature kids. But Kessler had poise and composure beyond his years," Northeast coach Al Kohlhafer said.

As a sophomore, Kessler won the 140-pound title by beating Francis Scott Key's Randy Owings, a two-time state champion.

"I can usually escape from anybody, but he countered everything I did," Owings said. "It wasn't his strength or anything, just technique. I have the match on tape, but haven't watched it. Don't know if I'm ready yet."

As remarkable as Kessler's career has been, it doesn't begin to approach national records. For instance, his single-season, state record for public school wrestlers is 37-0; the national record is 73-0.

But that doesn't mean he's outclassed outside Maryland.

Maryland national team director Ron Plienis said: "I watched him soundly defeat a Pennsylvania kid named Brian Barrows, who just signed early with Oklahoma State."

Matt Slutzky, a four-time state champion at Aberdeen and now a senior at the University of Maryland, saw the same bout.

"Steve's proven himself, beaten good, older opponents. Now he's on the other end of the spectrum," Slutzky said.

Kessler's lack of attention to schoolwork almost prevented him from extending his unbeaten streak in Maryland. His parents, Larry and Claudette, considered having him transfer to Blair Academy, a New Jersey private school known for its wrestling team and discipline.

"I cared nothing about the records -- Blair Academy wanted him, and I wanted him to go," said Larry Kessler. "We'd have these long battles about schoolwork, and felt we needed to challenge him more in those areas. But he begged us to stay, and he's doing much better."

Ari Dolid, co-captain at Owings Mills with Kessler, has noticed the change. "Steve's in practice on time every day, helping to get things organized and getting everyone lined up and ready to go," Dolid said.

Growing up, Steve sparred with two older brothers, Greg, now 21, and Kevin, 25. Kevin became a state champ at Chesapeake-Baltimore County in 1989. Greg, a 1993 Owings Mills graduate, had an overall 125-5-1 record and three state titles. And Mike Kessler, 10, is viewed as the best in the bunch.

Steve still can't beat Greg, who is a 126-pound junior at Rider University. Greg ranks No. 13 nationally, and Rider is No. 17.

"Our program's on the rise, and my coach [Gary Taylor] wants Steve to be a part of it," Greg said.

And Kessler has attracted national attention.

"Some coaches are saying that, under the right guidance, Steve can beat anybody," said Cornell Bass, secretary of the National High School Wrestling Coaches' Association. "They know he's got the heart and soul to win."

Mat mastery

Some of the wrestling accomplishments by Steve Kessler:

Career: 115-0, broke state record of 110-0 set by Lenny Bernstein of Bullis in 1984.

Ranked No. 1 since his freshman season.

Three-time state champion. This season, he can become the second four-time champ, joining Matt Slutzky, a 1992 Aberdeen graduate.

He can become the second Maryland public school wrestler to finish his career unbeaten, joining Brian Crane (83-0), a 1983 Paint Branch graduate.

Closest bouts

Steve Kessler's 10 closest bouts:

Freshman year

1-1: Eric Langley, Overlea, region semifinals, regulation, OT riding criteria**.

5-5: Matt Jewer, Northeast, state finals, regulation, OT riding criteria**.

2-1: Josh Fastie, Towson, dual meet.

3-1: Alex Leanos, Dulaney, county finals.

5-3: Frank Johnson, Aberdeen, region finals, OT.

5-2: John Motley, Hammond, state semifinals.

Sophomore year

3-2: Randy Owings, Francis Scott Key, state finals.

5-1: Sean Groszkowski, Franklin, dual meet.

5-0: Brad Sopher, Pikesville, region semifinals.

13-5*: Chris Schneck, C.M. Wright, dual meet.

*-Yielded near-fall points for only time in his career.

**-After three two-minute regulation periods and one two-minute overtime period, a 30-second, extra overtime session occurs. Kessler, from the top starting position, was victorious because his opponent did not score before the 30 seconds had elapsed.

Pub Date: 12/27/96

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