River Hill's Scott Mantua appears to be a typical 15-year-old sophomore finding his way in high school.
He's on the quiet side, gets A's and B's in the classroom and enjoys hanging out with friends. Find him on his dirt bike, and he's happy. Snowboarding and fishing are fun, too.
But when Mantua gets on the wrestling mat, that all changes.
"You wouldn't think he has the personality of a wrestler. And then he gets on the mat and just tears it up. It's fun to watch," said fellow River Hill sophomore Nathan White, who wrestles at 119 pounds and was a regional champion and state qualifier last season.
Too light to wrestle last year as a freshman, Mantua has been quick to make an impression in his first season wrestling at 103 pounds for the Hawks. Bringing a wealth of junior league experience that gives him a foundation few other wrestlers in his weight class can match, Mantua, who won the Edgewood Tournament last weekend with three pins and a 18-4 major decision, is undefeated this season with a 22-0 mark highlighted by 16 pins.
"Just the confidence alone, you can see when he goes out there that he knows exactly what he wants to do," said River Hill coach Brandon Lauer, a three-time state champion at River Hill from 1998-2000 who is in his first full season after replacing his father, Earl. "He goes in with a plan, sticks to it and executes it. He looks like a seasoned senior with the level of experience he brings, and he's only in 10th grade."
Mantua started wrestling in the Howard County recreation program on a whim when he was in the second grade.
"They were passing out fliers in school, so I thought I'd give it a try," he said.
He took to the sport immediately, winning regional titles his first two years in the recreation league before moving on to wrestle in the Howard County-based Vipers Junior League program. The past couple of years, he also has worked with Cary Kolat, a 2000 Olympian and four-time NCAA champion who runs youth camps in Baltimore.
"Scott came home from school one day and said, 'Dad, I think I want to try wrestling,' " said his father, Mike. "My wife and I thought it would probably last a season or two, but he excelled right away and here we are. He just always had a feel for it, works hard at it and enjoys it, too."
Mantua, who also played soccer until seventh grade, thrives on the individual challenge that comes with taking to the mat.
"I just liked wrestling better than soccer because with soccer, I didn't get to touch the ball as much. With wrestling, you're out there on the mat the whole time and it's a chance for me to individually perform to the best of my abilities," he said.
Strong on his feet, tough on top and bringing an assortment of moves, Mantua is the anchor of the Hawks' lighter weights. Lauer, who also missed out on his freshman season before capturing the three straight titles, sees a lot of himself in Mantua.
"His style is very similar to mine in that he's a little shorter, he's very quick and explosive and he loves to score points. So he's racking up all these points in a hurry, and because he likes to execute different moves, it creates opportunities for himself to look for the fall," Lauer said.
Having seen Mantua come up through the junior league ranks, Lauer had a good idea that he had something special to work with. This much success from Mantua this soon came as a bit of a surprise, though.
"The manner in which he is winning has been amazing," Lauer said. "It's not like he's winning decisions and piecing together wins. He's absolutely dominated his competition, and we want to continue with that mentality. I tell him: 'You can win,' and some wrestlers are fine with just winning. But the way you're winning also matters. If you're dominating, that just sets you apart and you can then win matches before they even start because opponents begin to fear you."
Mantua, who is top-ranked in the Class 4A-3A division and fifth overall by the Maryland State Wrestling Association, found his toughest assignment in late December when he grinded out a 9-6 decision over Arundel junior Nicole Woody to capture the Arundel Holiday Tournament.
A reversal and three near-fall points in the second period turned a 2-2 tie into a 7-2 lead that he was able to protect in the third period. Mantua likely will see Woody in the regional tournament, as well as at states.
"She's hard to wrestle because of her style, so I just wanted to wrestle my match. I was just happy to beat her because it gave me some recognition. I know next time she's going to be ready for me," Mantua said.
There will be plenty of other challenges for Mantua before then.
In the county, competition will come from Glenelg's Brendan Conway, Centennial's Jack Western and Reservoir's Ben O'Keefe, with the Hawks also having a late-season match against Calvert Hall, which has Bill Gialamis to provide Mantua with a good prep before the post-season starts.