Chris Combs has been a wrestler since he was 7, polishing his craft to near-flawless standards over the years.
Last weekend, the Old Mill senior became the third wrestler in Anne Arundel County and the first in the Patriots' rich wrestling history to win four county championships. Earlier this season, Combs moved to the top of Old Mill's list in career pins (60).
And with his 113-9 career record, he's now two wins away from 1983 grad Chuck Sturm's all-time school mark of 115.
For his opponents, a win against Combs could make a season, maybe even a career.
For his coach, calculating his team's chances in the state tournament next weekend, one thing already is measured.
"Looking at the state tournament, you think going in Chris is a state champ, and you build on that with the other eight or nine kids we may have," said Old Mill first-year coach Vern Hines.
"It sounds like pressure, but it's really not," said Combs, a 125-pounder who, starting in regional competition tonight, will try to become the Patriots' first three-time state champion.
"I think this team has a couple of bases, and I'm one of the major bases. For us to accomplish the goals we've set, everyone needs to step up. I will do that -- for myself and the team. So it's really not pressure.
"It sounds like it, and maybe two or three years ago I would have looked at it like pressure. But as I've grown up, I realized it's really not pressure. It's more or less showing up and producing when you need to."
Since being knocked out in the first round of the state tournament as a 103-pound freshman, which disrupted an otherwise stellar 29-4 first season, Combs has been perfect in March. Western Maryland College, site of the state tournament, has been like his second home this time of year.
"I'm still upset about how things turned out my freshman year. I felt I should have placed, but you get caught every once in a while, so it was definitely a learning experience," said Combs. "I learned I needed to put on some muscle. Everybody out there was bigger than me, so it was tough. Right after my freshman year, I got a membership to a gym -- like two days after states."
Once his size caught up with the outstanding technical foundation he already had developed, Combs, always the aggressor, has rarely been stopped. One such occasion came in last year's region final, when Meade's Matt Pandullo scored an emotional 3-2 decision in the 112-pound final.
The following week at states, Pandullo lost in the semifinals to Bladenburg's Kevin Bryant, who Combs went on to decision, 12-5, for the state crown.
"Since the seventh grade, I've been judging all my matches based on Chris," said Pandullo, who won the county title at 119 this season and is a strong contender for a state title at that weight. "My season was never good enough if I didn't beat him. He's just always been a step above everyone else I've wrestled against.
"Beating him made my whole year. I didn't win states, but it gave me a lot of confidence. Before I always thought of myself as a state placer. But now, after beating him, I believe I can be a state champ."
Combs' 27-2 record this season aside, Hines has been most impressed with his captain's maturity and leadership. Succeeding Mike Hampe, who retired after 22 seasons and seven state titles, was expected to be no easy chore for Hines, but Combs helped smooth the transition.
One of four co-captains, Combs, who wants to pursue a career as a trial lawyer, said his role is the loud one.
"When we're sitting back in that stairwell at Arundel, I'm the one losing my voice yelling to get everyone pumped up. I like that," said Combs, who is considering West Virginia, George Mason, James Madison and Lehigh for college.
Said Hines: "At counties, we had six kids going to the finals, and right before, I wanted to get them all together to have a talk. Chris already did that. He talked with them and then said, 'Coach Hines, we're ready for you,' " said Hines.
'One little mistake'
Senior James Fleming, who went on to win the 140-pound county championship and admitsto a lopsided loss to Combs in practice years ago, was listening.
"Chris just told us this was our time to step it up. We look up to him," said Fleming. "His style [on the mat], he's always in your face. One little mistake, and the match is over. He doesn't concentrate just on himself. Once his business is done, it's back to the team."
Combs' first order of business is bringing another state tournament title to Millersville. The Patriots captured the state dual-meet title last season but haven't won a tournament crown in Combs' first three seasons.
"It's going to take people wrestling how they've been wrestling and maybe stepping it up a notch or two," said Combs, whose only two losses this season were to out-of-state opponents.
"This year, we have six or so guys who I feel can place in the top four at states. As long as we wrestle with our hearts, we can win it. The unity we have on this team is very special. Coming up to regions and states, us going there as a team, as a family, is something I look forward to most."
Pub Date: 2/26/99