Damon Royster has elementary instructions for his wrestlers: On takedowns, take simple shots. On pinning combinations, go for the half nelson first. On escaping from the bottom, just stand up.
"The basics are the most important thing for us, because when our guys try to use all those fabulous moves, we get [pinned]," said Royster, whose most experienced wrestler is in his third season. "We have four first-year wrestlers in the lineup, and just about everyone else is a second-year wrestler. But we're further along than I thought we'd be, I'll tell you that."
Milford Mill is near the top of the Baltimore County 4A-3A Division with a 7-1 league record - this less than a year after Royster's six-member squad suffered through its sixth straight losing season at 2-12.
But the seventh-year coach finally has the Millers in the hunt for the league crown with undefeated Franklin and once-beaten Dulaney - a team Milford Mill defeated earlier this season before falling to Franklin on Tuesday. The Millers still can force a tie for the league crown with a win over Kenwood in their final league match, and a Dulaney victory over Franklin.
"We didn't have our two best guys [due to injury] against Franklin, but we're going to bounce back," said David Wray, a 145-pounder with a 12-4 record. "We're going to show up for [this weekend's] Overlea tournament, and we'll be tough against Kenwood."
That's good news for coach John Lowe - the man whose Milford Mill teams dominated county rivals through the 1960s and '70s, and who coached Royster during his sophomore year at Randallstown in 1986.
"I'm so glad Damon is over there saving that program," said Lowe, 80, who in 22 seasons at Milford Mill posted a 143-31-7 dual-meet record and won nine championships. "Damon had outstanding character and determination, so it doesn't surprise me that he's got them doing so well."
Of Royster's wrestlers only one, John Coates-Harris (112 pounds), returns to the varsity. And only third-year wrestler Tim Parks (215) has competed for more than two seasons.
Known for his cradle pinning hold, senior Aaron Smith (160) has a team-high 14-2 record. Parks, a senior, and sophomore Niles Alexander (275) have identical 13-2 records. Wray and Casey Currence (130) are 12-4, Coates-Harris is 11-4 and Antoine Staten (119) is 11-5.
The turnaround began with the junior varsity's county runner-up finish last year. It continued with a summer of weightlifting and wrestling - the latter including personal instruction from Pikesville assistant Steve Jacovsky.
Practices are grueling "half boot camp, half counseling sessions," said Royster, whose Millers include 16 wrestlers on the varsity and 18 on the junior varsity. "We have some head cases, but there's a lot of enthusiasm, and that can be as important as anything else."