Mount St. Joseph not afraid of going to mat for its most convincing points


On the morning after Thanksgiving, Mount St. Joseph head coach Jay Braunstein was not a happy man.

Days earlier, his Gaels wrestlers had not looked sharp in a scrimmage with Anne Arundel County power Old Mill. And during the Friday practice, they still were not executing routine moves with precision.

These were hardly the characteristics of a team that enters the season ranked No. 13 nationally by The Amateur Wrestling News. So not long after two wrestlers arrived late for that morning's practice, assistant coach Dan Youngblood let everyone know about it.

"I want to see intensity the entire time," said Youngblood. "If I don't, I will throw you out of this room."

"We're not a top 20 team right now -- I can guarantee that," Braunstein told the gathering of boys drilling a variety of setups for single-leg takedowns in synchronized motion.

"We aren't working hard enough," he later admonished his team members. "You've got to act like real wrestlers."

Like those back when Braunstein, now 46, competed for the Gaels' dynasties near the time of his graduation in 1977. Back when wrestlers, statewide, were attracted to the Gaels' tradition of hard work, dominance and the college scholarship that can come from competing in a high-profile program.

Last year's Gaels resembled those of the past, winning an unprecedented fourth private schools title and their second straight Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association crown.

The Gaels set records for total points in both tournaments. They advanced all 14 wrestlers to the MIAA semifinals and had 11 finalists -- both school records. They crowned six champs.

That success has earned the Gaels a preseason national ranking that is believed to be the highest any Maryland wrestling program has ever achieved. It also has attracted a variety of high-quality wrestlers with varying styles and agendas.

One of them is Mark Tsikerdanos (125), a former Frederick High state champion whose desire "to achieve more" -- despite his two-year 58-1 record -- brought him to the Gaels.

Tsikerdanos' move followed that of many others, like Kevin O'Connor (189), who reached the private schools state finals after leaving Glenelg.

There's no questioning the talent on this year's team, which includes 11 state place-winners -- four of whom are ranked No. 1 by the Maryland State Wrestling Association.

But the challenge for Braunstein is to appease the high expectations of his contemporaries while also getting a team of varying egos to "gel."

"You take a kid who has been trained somewhere else for two years and you bring him in, and he'll pick the training up pretty quickly," said Braunstein. "But how does he get along with the rest of his teammates?"

Braunstein will know fairly quickly if he has succeeded in bringing the team together, starting with the prestigious Iron Man Tournament on Dec. 10 at Walsh Jesuit High in Ohio.

The Iron Man is the first of three nationally-recognized tournaments in which the Gaels will compete. They'll also attend the Beast of the East at the University of Delaware and the PowerAde Christmas Tournament in Trinity, Pa.

"The first test is going to come real quick at Iron Man. We're going to be there with five or six teams that are ranked ahead of us, and four or five that are ranked below us," said Youngblood. "We can finish ninth and drop off [the rankings]. ... But if the kids do what I believe they're capable of doing, we'll finish fifth or better. If we don't, that means, as coaches, we didn't succeed."

That's why Youngblood is pushing so hard in the two-hour practices, raising the bar by inviting alumni like Andrew Gold, a former state champ now wrestling for the University of Pennsylvania.

After a drill during last month's workout, Tsikerdanos took a moment to catch his breath. He later admits there are times he wonders what he's gotten himself into, but Tsikerdanos more often knows the torturous routine is exactly what he came for.

"I expected to come here and have really brutal practices," said Tsikerdanos, his loosely-fitting workout clothes clinging to his sweat-soaked body.

"The first [few practices] you're not going to like it," Tsikerdanos said. "But in the long run, you're going to be able to go that extra minute in a match, be able to push yourself to achieve."

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