Amid chaos that has dashed preseason state wrestling title hopes, Ross Bell and Tyler Graham have emerged as bright spots for North Carroll.
Before this season, both had hoped for the Panthers to earn a bid to the dual-meet regionals. But the preseason suspension of five key wrestlers and the loss of four other varsity starters to injuries and personal conflicts have crippled a team thought to be contending for a Class 3A-4A state crown.
"With everything falling apart around them, they still don't let that affect them when it comes to wrestling out there on the mat," said North Carroll coach Bryan Wetzel. "That's a tough thing to do."
Bell is the veteran, a 119-pound junior who speaks softly and lets 52 victories in three seasons do the talking.
Graham is the first-year sophomore who has already earned The Sun's No. 3 ranking among 103-pounders in the Baltimore metropolitan area.
The pair took drastically different routes to the Hampstead school. Graham has been on the Manchester wrestling team since he was 7 years old.
Rather than spend a season wrestling three opponents as a member of the school's JV squad, Graham opted to compete in 40 matches for Manchester during his freshman year at North Carroll.
Graham was rewarded for his decision by finishing second in the Junior League state championships last year and making the varsity team in November.
Bell also began wrestling at Manchester, but he didn't start the sport until the eighth grade.
Manchester coach Kenneth Kiler says the coaching staff worked hard to help Graham develop self-confidence.
"It's easy to play it safe on the mat and win 3-2 or 2-1," Kiler says. "With Tyler's ability, he doesn't need to play it safe. He can open up and get the points and pins."
Kiler says he was most impressed with Bell's use of advanced techniques in his rookie season.
"That was the biggest surprise, how quickly he came along in his first year," Kiler says. "He really picked up on the cradles and cross-face cradles and other moves that he can use with his lanky build."
As a freshman, Bell tried out for North Carroll and earned a varsity spot at 112 pounds.
"When I first came out, I didn't think it was going to be as tough as everyone said it would be," Bell said. "Then reality set in."
Bell went 15-15 that year. At 119 pounds last season, he was 21-8, won the county title and finished fourth at regionals.
Much more was expected, but the suspensions took their toll: the team dipped into an 11-meet winless slide that ended last Wednesday with a 40-31 victory over Frederick.
"Coming into the season, we were looking to go undefeated," Graham says. "Winning our first match was an accomplishment. It's that what-could-have-been that is frustrating."
Despite the Panthers' struggles, Bell and Graham have forged on. Graham is 21-2, has beaten every county opponent, and is undefeated in dual-meet matches.
His only losses were to Gilman's Clayton Bentz and Archbishop Curley's Mark Frey, who are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, by The Sun.
Graham says his success has been the most surprising development of the season.
"I was hoping to be successful, but I didn't know what kind of competition was out there waiting for me," he said. "I've worked hard, and it's paying off so far."
Bell is 16-6, and one of his wins came against Francis Scott Key's Nate Yinger, who won county and regional titles at 103 pounds last season.
Bell says he hopes to avenge earlier losses to Kellen Weber of South Carroll and Adam Tenney of Westminster at the county championships at Francis Scott Key on Feb. 19.
"I'm not satisfied," Bell says. "I think during the early part of the season, I didn't wrestle to my potential. I'm prepared now."