Oakland Mills senior heavyweight Ernie Smith said he felt like he won two county titles: one for him and one for the team.
While that’s not entirely true, as the Scorpions had 11 grapplers place among the top four of their brackets, the team title at the 50th annual Howard County wrestling tournament Friday at Mt. Hebron was still up for grabs when Smith took the mat for the final match of the night.
The senior delivered for his squad the best way possible. With Glenelg leading the team race by two points, Smith’s 5-1 victory over Reservoir’s Dylan Altman gave Oakland Mills four crucial team points for a total of 217.5 and its first county championship since 2015.
“When I jumped up and down with the team they said I won it for the team. I didn’t even know that,” Smith admitted.
“It does make it extra special: last match of the night, you win your county title and then you turn around and the team’s there,” Scorpions coach Brad Howell said. “That team title means more to you then that individual title. The closeness of the kids and the bonds between the team and the coaches and parents ... It feels real good to win it with a group.”
Glenelg, which still crowned a tournament-high four champions in Kevin Hansberger (126), Jared Thomas (138), Jake Arnone (182) and Sam Alsheimer (195), scored 215.5 points and fell just short of winning its fourth consecutive county tournament championship.
“To be honest, I didn’t think it was going to be close,” admitted Gladiators coach Matt Bichner, “but Oakland Mills wrestled a great tournament. They had 11 guys place top four and we only had eight. People don’t realize those points battling back and the bonus points and staying in matches and getting third. They did a good job of coming back and I don’t think we did a good job at that.”
Atholton (187 points), Hammond (180.5) and River Hill (120) rounded out the top five teams and were followed by Centennial (111), Mt. Hebron (106), Marriotts Ridge (91), Howard (81), Reservoir (52), Long Reach (45) and Wilde Lake (21).
Eagles senior Jason Kraisser (33-0), the two-time reigning Howard County Wrestler of the Year and last year’s Baltimore Sun All-Metro Wrestler of the Year, made history by becoming the 11th wrestler in history to win four Howard County tournament titles, as he dominated Oakland Mills’ Dylan Watt, 15-3, in the 152-pound final. His older brothers Nathan and Austin were the two most recent grapplers to accomplish the feat in 2012 and 2016, respectively.
“It’s really cool. It’s nice to be able to be a part of something like that,” said Kraisser, who is also looking to win his fourth region and state titles in the coming weeks. “... It’s awesome because you know everybody. I wrestled against guys I’ve known since junior league and saw other guys I’ve known win county titles. It’s pretty awesome being a part of that tight-knit community.”
While the list isn’t quite as exclusive, Thomas and Alsheimer joined the three-time county champion club, becoming members No. 25 and 26.
Thomas (39-0), who, like Kraisser, is a defending county, region and state champion, opened up a decisive lead against River Hill’s Michael Crisitello in his championship bout after Crisitello caught Thomas on his back for two near-fall points. The senior rallied in the final two periods for a comfortable 16-6 victory.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Thomas said. “It’s always about looking for the next step to get better. ... I’ve got a feeling coming late in the season there’s going to be a lot of close matches but that will help me later.”
Alsheimer (36-1) had no issues winning his bracket, as the senior won his three matches by fall in 13, 23 and 46 seconds. He pinned Mt. Hebron’s Jake Witlin in a cradle in his fourth straight appearance in a county championship match.
“Four would be better but I guess that didn’t work out,” Alsheimer said, “but no, it’s pretty cool. Definitely an honor to be on that list there. It’s awesome; a lot of hard work has gone into it and to have my name back on the wall again is a great feeling.”
Hansberger (34-5), meanwhile, took home the Glenn L. Devane award as the tournament’s most outstanding wrestler for his efforts. The senior, who won a county championship as a sophomore, avenged a 3-1 loss to Atholton’s Drew Pruett in the regular season with a 6-4 victory against the reigning county champion.
Hansberger held a 5-4 lead entering the third period and rode out Pruett the final two minutes. A second stalling call on Pruett gave Hansberger a two-point win.
“I felt confident and that’s what I wanted. I wanted to go into the third period up by one and I’m very confident on top,” said Hansberger, who added that his one county title never felt like enough for him. “I knew I was going to be able to ride him and I was able to do just that.”
Perhaps one of the more unexpected county champions, Arnone (28-6) dominated the 182-pound bracket. He made quick work of Atholton’s Michael Johnson in the final, winning by fall in just 56 seconds, but he also scored pins in 1:42 and 0:07 on the day.
Arnone admitted that he never imagined he would get this far.
“It feels great to finally accomplish something like this,” he said. “It’s surreal to me.”
Atholton senior Sean Billups (31-3) and junior David Panda (33-1) defended their county championships in style.
Billups, who beat Glenelg’s eventual state champion Max Sotka a year ago in his to win his first league title, beat younger brother Drew Sotka, 6-5, to win his second 170-pound championship in his fourth trip to the finals. He trailed Sotka by a point late but secured a takedown with 20 seconds remaining and held on for the victory.
“He’s a really skilled wrestler. It’s hard going into a match feeling like you can take on everyone but you’ve got to fit your skills to certain wrestlers,” said Billups, who also beat Sotka by one point in the regular season. “I give him a lot of credit; he’s a great wrestler. But at the end, it comes down to who wants it more.”
Panda, meanwhile, recently dropped from 120 pounds to 113 and rolled over his three opponents and won each by fall in the first period. He needed 1:51 to stick River Hill’s Eric Robinson in the championship bout and looked as confident as ever in the process.
The senior said his offseason chalked full of wrestling tournament all over the east coast gave him more confidence heading into the season and it’s paying off. Now, he says, he wants to win two more tournaments.
“I want the triple crown: counties, regionals and states,” Panda said. “I’m coming back to avenge my loss to [Stephen Decatur’s] Jagger Clapsadle and that’s it. That’s all I’m practicing for right now. ... I’m not losing to him again.”
Another grappler who dominated in his bracket was River Hill senior Will Henrickson (39-0), who, like Kraisser and Thomas, kept his perfect season intact. He stuck Oakland Mills’ Quan Dunscomb in 2:35 to win his second county title in as many years.
“I’m in better shape than I have been in my entire high school career,” said Henrickson, who transferred from Colorado to River Hill in January 2018 before placing fourth at the state tournament. “At this moment, I peaked and it’s paying off. I’ve just got to keep doing what I’m doing.”
A year after crowning its first county champion in three years, Hammond had three champions: Loic Tueguo (220), Shehzan Dahya (106) and Keneth Rios (120).
Similar to Panda and Henrickson, Tueguo (41-1) pinned his way through the bracket to win his second straight league title. His finals match, however, was far from a breeze. In fact, Glenelg’s Massimo Conti nearly pinned Tueguo in the opening period before the Golden Bears’ senior captain regained his composure and got the fall just before the second period buzzer.
“Last year it was kind of a new experience so I was nervous, but this year I just had to come out and let everything fly,” he said. “It’s very tough [to regain composure after nearly getting pinned], especially with the crowd yelling like that, but you can’t let that stuff get to you. You’ve got to push through and believe in yourself.”
Dahya (37-4) started the finals round with an exciting bout against Glenelg’s David Ridenour and won it in the final seconds. With the match tied at five, Dahya got just enough of Ridenour’s ankle on a low single and caught him on his back for a takedown and two near-fall points in the final 20 seconds to win, 9-6.
“I got gassed a little with it being the first time on that big stage and everything, but when I saw him getting up slow and doing everything slowly, I said this kid is gassed too,” said Dahya, who started wrestling as a sophomore. “I’ve been working for two years and every offseason and I wasn’t going to let that happen my senior year.”
No county champion was seeded lower than Rios (28-5), who earned the No. 6 seed only to upset the top three seeds en route to the title. After an 8-6 win in the quarterfinals and a 14-12 victory against No. 1 seed Jonah Richardson of River Hill, Rios upended Oakland Mills’ Jalen Cornelius, 5-4, in a finals match that was decided at the buzzer.
Cornelius tied the score at four with a takedown with 30 seconds left but Rios reclaimed the advantage with an escape. Cornelius, however, was awarded a takedown at the final second before the referees gathered and decided it came after the buzzer, giving Rios the one-point victory.
“I thank the coaches for believing in me,” Rios said. “They always believed in me and pushed me harder when I don’t believe in myself. I’ve been working so hard for this moment and finally got it.”
If Smith’s victory clinched Oakland Mills’ team title, Anthony Morales’ championship victory at 160 pounds was the primary assist. The senior shocked the gym when, in overtime, he took down Glenelg’s Jacob Jones, who was aiming for his third straight county title in his fourth finals appearance, and avenged several prior defeats in a 4-2 win.
Jones beat Morales 14-3 in early January and 15-4 in last year’s county championship match, but this time Morales got the better of his adversary when it mattered most.
“I wasn’t thinking about those matches at all, man. I treat every match like it’s the same. I go in there and just want to have fun,” said Morales. “I was focusing more on having fun this time around and that’s been my focus the entire season. I just want to have as much fun as I possibly can all the time.”
Howard entered the day with just one county champion this decade — Jared Rodriguez in 2014 — but junior Shayan Kassiri (29-3) ended the five-year drought with a 3-2 decision over Marriotts Ridge’s Will Vaxmonsky in the 145-pound final. Kassiri, who lost to Vaxmonsky in double overtime in early December, flexed his arms and pounded his chest in celebration.
“It means a lot to beat these great guys in the county. I’m excited,” he said. “I just wanted to keep wrestling. He had two great shots on me but I wanted to stay focused and keep fighting.”
106: Shehzan Dahya (Hammond) dec. David Ridenour (Glenelg), 9-6
113: David Panda (Atholton) pinned Eric Robinson (River Hill), 1:51
120: Keneth Rios (Hammond) dec. Jalen Cornelius (Oakland Mills), 5-4
126: Kevin Hansberger (Glenelg) dec. Drew Pruett (Atholton), 6-4
132: Will Henrickson (River Hill) pinned Quan Dunscomb (Oakland Mills), 2:35
138: Jared Thomas (Glenelg) major dec. Michael Crisitello (River Hill), 16-6
145: Shayan Kassiri (Howard) dec. Will Vaxmonsky (Marriotts Ridge), 3-2
152: Jason Kraisser (Centennial) major dec. Dylan Watt (Oakland Mills), 15-3
160: Anthony Morales (Oakland Mills) dec. Jacob Jones (Glenelg), 4-2 OT
170: Sean Billups (Atholton) dec. Drew Sotka (Glenelg), 6-5
182: Jake Arnone (Glenelg) pinned Michael Johnson (Atholton), 0:56
195: Sam Alsheimer (Glenelg) pinned Jake Witlin (Mt. Hebron), 0:46
220: Loic Tueguo (Hammond) pinned Massimo Conti (Glenelg), 4:00
285: Ernie Smith (Oakland Mills) dec. Dylan Altman (Reservoir), 5-1