COLLEGE PARK — After practice in the wrestling room inside Xfinity Center, members of the Maryland wrestling program touch a mat on the wall bearing the phrase “Expect to win.”
The habit is the brainchild of coach Alex Clemsen, who has helmed the Terps since April 2019. But he did not hang the mat on the wall until recently.
“I’ve been waiting to start that tradition until this year,” he said, comparing the routine to Notre Dame football players slapping a “Play Like A Champion Today” sign while walking out of the locker room. “That’s not a knock or a slight on the previous three teams. I’m just not a big believer in doing things just because it’s cool. These kids should really believe in themselves and expect to win.”
These are heady times for Maryland. After defeating Navy, 18-15, on Dec. 11, the team is 5-0 in dual meets — the program’s best start since the 2011-12 season when that squad opened the campaign with 13 consecutive wins. The Terps were ranked No. 23 in the National Wrestling Coaches Association poll on Nov. 23 — the school’s first ranking since Nov. 13, 2013, when that team was ranked No. 22 — and are No. 22 in the latest poll. FloWrestling ranks Maryland No. 16 in its latest poll.
Clemsen’s philosophy has trickled down to the wrestlers.
“We’ve believed it this whole time, but now it’s like we’re finally putting it on the mat and showing it off,” said sophomore Dominic Solis, a Laurel resident and McDonogh graduate who is 5-0 at 174 pounds so far. “It was just a matter of time before the results started showing on the mat.”
As encouraging as the 5-0 start has been, wrestlers like graduate student Jaron Smith said their standards are high.
“The expectation isn’t just a post-it note. We expect to win,” said the Columbia resident and Oakland Mills graduate who is 4-1 at heavyweight. “So 5-0 for us, we’re kind of just approaching it not like something we’re hanging our hat on. It’s just something that we’re doing.”
Solis and Smith credited Clemsen with changing the program’s culture from an individualized approach to a group-wide intent. Clemson said he has two simple rules for his wrestlers: go to class and live clean.
The team recently completed its fourth consecutive semester with a cumulative GPA of 3.0, and one way members live clean is by committing to a summer-long regimen of training in College Park. Solis said sacrificing vacation for vocation has been worth it.
“This stuff doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “Clemmy always says, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day. Some [expletives] had to start laying some bricks.’ So we’ve laid enough bricks and our foundation became big enough for us to start believing. This is our time, and it’s going to continue getting better.”
The journey to this stage has been arduous. In Clemsen’s first three seasons, the Terps went 2-17 in 2019-20, 0-8 in 2020-21 and 7-12 in 2021-22 with a combined 0-25 mark in Big Ten competition.
Clemsen, who praised assistant coaches Nick Brascetta and Devin Mellon for helping him develop the team, recalled a conversation he had with athletic director Damon Evans before he was hired in April 2019.
“Mr. Evans asked me how long it would take, and I told him four years to be competitive and six years to be good,” Clemsen recalled. “He sat back, and his comment was, ‘Holy cow, that’s not what some other people have said to me.’ And I said, ‘They’re lying. I don’t know what to tell you.’ We knew it was going to take some time.”
The season began on the right foot when Maryland defeated Bloomsburg (37-6), Duke (37-0) and American (29-10) during a quad meet at home on Nov. 5. Clemsen said he got a kick when freshman Kal Miller turned him during the match with American and said, “Dang, Coach, I think we’re going to be pretty good.”
“I kind of smiled back, and I said, ‘Well, I think we’ve got a chance to be OK. It’s up to you guys if we’re good or not,’” Clemsen said.
The turning point of the season might be an 18-16 upset of then-No. 23 Pittsburgh on Nov. 18 for the program’s first victory over a ranked opponent since Feb. 17, 2013, when that squad upended No. 20 Wyoming, 20-12. But even that success was short-lived.
“Maybe the Pitt match kind of opened our eyes a little bit, but I don’t think it was a turning point because we expected to win,” Solis said. “I think it was more of a [realization], ‘Oh, we’re really here. We expect this.’ The belief system behind the expectation to win is really working, and it’s kind of cool to see.”
Maryland is scheduled to open the new year by participating in the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on Sunday and Monday. Then the team will face Indiana in its Big Ten opener on Jan. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at Xfinity Center.
Smith said the school’s lack of success in the Big Ten is a point of motivation.
“The Big Ten is easily the hardest conference for wrestling, but we’re a Big Ten team, too,” he said. “We’re not here to beat all of the nonconference teams and then get the consolation prize of [saying,] ‘Oh, it’s so hard in the Big Ten, so we’re just happy to be here.’ We’re here to win Big Ten matches because it’s the Big Ten.”
That confidence is rewarding for Clemsen, who said he still has “receipts” of those who questioned whether he could revive the Terps. He said he won’t put a cap on his team’s potential.
“I don’t want to put a number or a ceiling on these guys because I think that’s unfair to any group of kids,” he said. “I do think that if we’re wrestling at our best and all 10 guys are in it, we can compete with anybody out there. I don’t dread anybody on our schedule.”
At University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Sunday through Monday