'Our wrestling room used to be in a basement': Historic rivalries elevating MIAA programs

Tim Schwartz
Contact ReporterBaltimore Sun Media Group

Harry Barnabae graduated from Mount Saint Joseph more than 40 years ago, but his first time experiencing the rivalry with McDonogh is still fresh in his mind. He can’t remember why exactly, but there were a lot of bragging rights on the line when the Gaels and Eagles squared off during Barnabae’s freshman season in 1974.

“I was the 100-pounder and it came down to Leo Winterling winning the heavyweight match at the end of the match and everybody stormed the mat, and it has just continued,” said Barnabae, who is entering his eighth season as wrestling coach of his alma mater. “It continued decade after decade.”

In the years since then, the rivalry has been largely one-sided in favor of Mount Saint Joseph, but the tide began to shift in 1993 when Pete Welch, fresh off a college wrestling career at North Carolina, became McDonogh’s coach.

“I didn’t know anything about the school; I just needed a job,” he said with a laugh. “I was right out of school and I thought I knew everything about wrestling and I thought I knew everything about coaching. I made a lot of mistakes, but I surrounded myself with great people and we all grew together.”

Since 2002, when the Eagles won their first Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association tournament title in 41 years, there have been no better teams and no better rivalry in the state of Maryland.

Either Mount Saint Joseph or McDonogh has won the MIAA title 14 of the past 16 years — John Carroll won it in 2015 and Archbishop Spalding in 2011 — and the schools have claimed six of the past seven Maryland Independent Schools (MIS) state tournament crowns.

After McDonogh won four straight MIAA titles from 2011 to 2015, Mount Saint Joseph has won the past three and has been The Baltimore Sun’s top-ranked team ever since.

“Pete and [assistant coach] Joe [Bakewell] have been there for so long, the stability is there at McDonogh ... and the same thing with Harry over at Mount Saint Joe,” said St. Paul’s coach Rob Eiter, who compared Mount Saint Joseph to a small college program with the junior league team being so entrenched. “The tradition is there, and you see Harry, he’s at almost every kids tournament wearing his beat up ‘MSJ’ sweatshirt and shaking hands and kissing babies.”

Both Barnabae and Welch largely credit their respective administrations for helping the programs develop into powerhouses.

At Mount Saint Joseph, the 2013 opening of the $18.5 million Smith Center, which is named after alumnus Vinny Smith and his wrestling coach at the school, Allen Smith, signified as much. The wrestling room in mere steps away from the main gym and is one of the largest in the state.

In Owings Mills, the Rollins-Luetkemeyer Athletic Center was built in 1996 at McDonogh with the wrestling team firmly in mind.

“Our wrestling room used to be in a basement. Now, it’s the first thing you see when you walk in the athletic center,” Welch said. “They put the sport front and center, which is big, and I think a lot of schools have followed suit with that, too, which is good for the entire sport.”

Expectations among the area coaches are that Mount Saint Joseph is again the team to beat this winter with McDonogh being the top contender. Barnabae says this year’s team is better on paper than last season’s squad that went 18-1, while Welch has a talented freshman class and believes this Eagles team can give the Gaels a run for their money.

But they aren’t the only teams aiming for big things this season in the MIAA.

St. Paul’s has finished just behind both teams the past few years under Eiter, a 1996 Olympian and former college coach. The Crusaders return the area’s best wrestler, Michigan commit Kurt McHenry, and in the mind of Eiter, they have become a legitimate third option to the big two.

“There is another option, there is a third option in some of these families’ decisions, which is good for the state and good for the kids,” Eiter said. “It’ll be interesting to see what happens down the road here.”

McHenry is ranked second in the country at 120 pounds by FloWrestling, and the two-time United World Wrestling freestyle cadet national champion spent the majority of the summer training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. Eiter said McHenry has developed into a leader this season and continues to find new ways to push himself and his teammates, and therefore is poised for another big season.

“The main focus for Kurt right now is the same as always: Get big and strong,” Eiter said, referring to McHenry being undersized during his high school career. “He’s still on the small side, but he makes up for it with his speed and quickness and wrestling knowledge.”

Maryland commit Jack Parr, Nasir Wilkinson and Wil Guida are also expected to compete for MIAA, MIS and National Preps titles for St. Paul’s.

It would be hard to count out Archbishop Spalding this season as well. The Cavaliers have a strong senior class to pair with “our biggest and best freshman class since I started coaching,” coach Mike Laidley said.

The first play date for MIAA teams was Friday, with Mount Saint Joseph competing at the KC Duals in Virginia and McDonogh hosting 18 teams at the Ray Oliver Tournament. The showdown between Mount Saint Joseph and McDonogh is set for Jan. 24 in Baltimore.

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