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Gilman duo finds happiness with Irish

South Bend, Ind. — South Bend, Ind. -- Victor Abiamiri and Ambrose Wooden came here from Baltimore four years ago hoping to find the kind of success at Notre Dame that they had at the Gilman School, where as seniors they led the football team to an undefeated season and a No. 1 ranking in the state.

Returning today to play in their hometown for the first time when the 11th-ranked Fighting Irish meet Navy at M&T; Bank Stadium, Abiamiri and Wooden find themselves in different situations in their college careers.

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Abiamiri, a 6-foot-4, 270-pound defensive end, has emerged as the team's most effective pass rusher the past two seasons. He leads Notre Dame (6-1) with six sacks, as well as 10.5 tackles for losses and 11 quarterback hurries. He is considered a certain NFL prospect, and possibly a first-round pick.

After starting all of last season and the first three games this season, Wooden, a 5-11, 197-pound cornerback, is coming off the bench. A sprained knee suffered against Michigan on Sept. 16 knocked him out of the lineup for nearly a month, and he has been replaced by junior Terrail Lambert.

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Recruited to play for Tyrone Willingham, Abiamiri and Wooden were freshmen on a team that went 5-7 in 2003 and 6-6 in 2004, leading to Willingham's dismissal. As juniors, they contributed significantly to a 9-3 team that nearly beat top-ranked Southern California and wound up losing to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Abiamiri has made a steady, nearly uninterrupted rise. He started five games as a freshman and played in every game as a sophomore, although he didn't start. His breakout came last season, when he had eight sacks among his 48 tackles and was named the team's lineman of the year.

"Victor has put himself in a position now where when we go against anybody, they have to know where Victor is," second-year coach Charlie Weis said. "I think that he's drawn some special attention, but at the same time the one thing I do know about him that I didn't know when I got here is that he has a very, very, very high motor that goes with his athletic ability."

After initially making an oral commitment to play for Maryland, Abiamiri wound up accepting Notre Dame's scholarship offer when Terps coach Ralph Friedgen announced that one of his former assistants had given Abiamiri a video game system as a Christmas present, an NCAA violation.

Abiamiri said he used to think about what it might have been like to play at Maryland, especially when the Terps were going to major bowl games and Notre Dame wasn't his first two years, but said he doesn't regret his decision to play for the Irish rather than following his two brothers to College Park.

"I thought about it way back when, but I definitely couldn't think of a better place to be," Abiamiri said earlier this week. "It's definitely met my expectations, going to Notre Dame. I expected it to be tough academically and challenging me athletically as well, and it's done so in both facets."

Unlike Abiamiri, Wooden's four years have not been as smooth.

"It's been a bumpy road as far as health and academics and everything, but I wouldn't take back anything," said Wooden, who, like Abiamiri, is a finance major. "I've enjoyed every moment here, from the positives to the negatives. You learn so much about life."

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Asked what has been the most difficult aspect of his career, Wooden said: "I think probably the injuries, because some injuries can keep you out of class. They can actually affect your thinking. You're thinking more about the injuries than focusing on school."

If there is a way to describe Wooden, it's resilient. After not playing at all as a freshman, Wooden was used mostly on special teams as a sophomore. After missing all of spring practice following shoulder surgery, Wooden worked his way into the starting lineup as a junior.

It was a season in which Wooden was involved in some of Notre Dame's biggest plays.

The first came against the Trojans, when after helping deflect a pass that was intercepted earlier in the game, Wooden was beaten by All-American Dwayne Jarrett on a 61-yard pass that set up Matt Leinart's game-winning touchdown. But Wooden came back to make a key interception in a win over Tennessee.

Now, after losing his starting job to Lambert, who has made three interceptions in the past two games, Wooden is realistic about what has transpired.

"Coach Weis plays the best players," Wooden said. "You've just got to keep playing hard, trying to get back to where you were, and support the guys in front of you. Seeing how well Terrail is playing, I'm happy for him. When you get hurt, or you don't play well, you expect someone to get the chance to step up. It's a part of life and you've got to deal with it."

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Weis said he hasn't lost confidence in Wooden.

"He knows that he's right there in the mix; this isn't like a demotion," Weis said. "It's 1 and 1-A - it's that close. You can only put two guys out there at a time, unless it's nickel [coverage]. And he's out there when it is nickel."

Coming off the bench doesn't take away from the excitement Wooden has in going home to play for the first time.

"It's just the general aspect of going home, playing in M&T; Bank Stadium, Ray's field [Ray Lewis]. Last year I was home watching the playoff game and now I'm going to be a guy on that field. It's an honor in itself, it's amazing," Wooden said. "When I found out a year or two ago we were playing in Baltimore, I thought, 'This is awesome.'"

Stan White, the former Baltimore Colts linebacker who has served as defensive coordinator at Gilman for a decade, is proud to see what his former players have accomplished in college. White got to see them play in person at the Fiesta Bowl because his son, Stan Jr., plays for Ohio State.

"They've been through a lot out there," said White, who has known Wooden since he recruited him to play on his Baltimore County baseball team as a 12-year-old and later helped bring him to Gilman. "They're both doing great in school, they're both doing great in football, they're both great young men."

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Wooden said he has a hard time finding one highlight that sticks out above the rest.

"There's no one highlight; it's just being here," he said. "No one in my family made it out of Baltimore to go to college; everyone went to local colleges. Being the first kid in my family, especially to come to a place like this, changed not only my life, but the life of my family."

The path that brought Abiamiri and Wooden together at Gilman and kept them together here will diverge after the season. Abiamiri likely will follow his brother Rob, a practice squad player for the Ravens, to the NFL. Wooden has another year of eligibility because he didn't play as a freshman.

Will he use it? "It's all up to the man upstairs," Wooden said. "I'd love to play. I feel especially after the unfortunate situation that happened the last couple of weeks, I hope I can come back and do all I can to contribute and help the team."

Is the man upstairs Weis, whose office is located a few feet above where Wooden was sitting, or the highest authority?

"Both of them, actually," Wooden said with a laugh.

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don.markus@baltsun.com

>>>Notre Dame vs. Navy

Today, noon, M&T; Bank Stadium, chs. 13, 9, 1090 AM, 1430 AM, 1500 AM Line: Notre Dame by 13


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