Comeback kids

The Baltimore Sun

During a Harford County League dual meet in the 2002-03 season, Havre de Grace was forfeiting so many bouts that Aberdeen's wrestling team would have had to lose every bout by pin to lose the match.

"Every one of our kids lost, but we had a couple of guys not get pinned. And because of that, we were able to win our one match of the season by a few points," recalled coach Jerry Lacey, who was then an assistant. "I called [former coach] Dick Slutzky on the phone and I had to brag a little bit. I told him, 'We did something you never did: We won a dual meet without actually winning a bout.' "

Lacey can chuckle about it now, but back then Aberdeen's futility was no laughing matter. In his third season as co-coach with Slutzky, however, Lacey seems to have the Eagles on the verge of a turnaround that he can smile about.

The No. 15 Eagles return all but four starters from a team that went 18-6 and finished fifth in the overall standings of the 14-team Upper Chesapeake Bay Athletic Conference tournament, as seven wrestlers placed in the top six of their weight categories. In addition, the Eagles' roster has more than tripled to 35, up from about 10 in 2002-03.

"In fairness to the previous years, it was hard to get kids interested because of construction going on in the school, forcing our wrestlers to practice in the hallway next to the vending machines," said Lacey, 51, whose Eagles won 15 matches in 2003-04 after having finished second-to-last in the nine-team county tournament in 2003. "We'd be practicing, and students would literally walk across the mats to get a soda."

After taking over after the 2003 season, Lacey said, "I called Dick and asked him if he was willing to help out. Dick said, 'That depends on who the coach is.' I said, 'That would be me.' "

Lacey has the official title of head coach, but he calls himself a co-coach with Slutzky, 65, the man for whom Lacey wrestled from 1972 to 1974 before serving as an assistant during the 25-year period that Slutzky's teams dominated county and state wrestling.

Before Slutzky's retirement in 1997 with a career dual meet record of 289-42-1, the Eagles won 19 county titles and became Maryland's first team to win three outright state tournament titles over as many straight seasons.

A county councilman, Slutzky volunteers without pay largely because he once was a struggling grade-school pupil who found respite in wrestling not long after the death of his mother when he was 10. Slutzky's three sons, including Matt, 32, the youngest, also wrestled.

Matt Slutzky, who became Maryland's first four-time individual state champ in 1992, is an assistant, as is Guy Cox, a retired state trooper who wrestled for Dick Slutzky. Assistant David Easter also wrestled for Slutzky, and assistant Tim Lindicamp is a former minor-league baseball coach.

"Coach Slutzky saved pictures of all of Aberdeen's state place-winners. It's on our Wall of Fame in the wrestling room," Lacey said. "When Coach Slutzky is teaching, there's not a day that goes by where he doesn't point to the success stories of kids on the wall, what they're doing in life right now."

Lacey and Dick Slutzky had to recruit from the hallways, the football team and from other sports.

"We told the seniors on this year's team when we took over - when they were in 10th grade - that we wanted to make wrestling one of the school's elite programs," Lacey said. "We told them that in 12th grade they'd be able to walk the hallways with pride."

Aberdeen's wrestlers wear T-shirts that read, "A tradition of excellence," followed by a number of items detailing the program's past accomplishments. At the bottom of the T-shirts it reads, "The Boys Are Back In Town."

"In the offseason, everyone was looking forward to coming back to wrestling. We're all about the team, not about the individual," said senior Reid Edwards (171 pounds), a tri-captain with Kyle Lacey (189) and Jared Hullett (119). "My freshman year, we had maybe five kids on the team. And at matches, we had maybe a couple of parents and almost nobody else.

"But now the gym is always filled with fans, and the room is filled with wrestlers. Now we're starting to get a little respect around the county. We're very balanced throughout the lineup, with few week spots. Nobody can just look at their schedule and chalk us up as another win."

Edwards, Hullett and Kyle Lacey are three-sport athletes who helped recruit others to wrestling. Junior Brandon Wayne, a 140-pound junior, returns after having won 21 bouts and placing fourth at the UCBAC tournament. Senior Brandon Frazier is back in the middle weights.

One of the newer wrestlers is Chris Hoffman, who was a 14-year-old freshman who had never wrestled when friends recruited him to the Eagles. "I'm small and short. I'm about 5-foot-3, but I'm really strong," said Hoffman, now a sophomore.

Competing at 103 last season, Hoffman went 28-9 with nine pins, winning a tournament at Joppatowne and placing fourth at the UCBAC. Hoffman wrestled in summer tournaments, losing close bouts to wrestlers such as state place-winner Helen Maroulis of Montgomery County's Magruder and Pikesville's county champ Ben Baker.

"I went into overtime with Baker, and Helen beat me by two points," Hoffman said. "I go out, put everything into it, leave it all on the mat. I feel like this is the sport for me, like I have a great future."

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