As soon as they hit the mat at the Junior National Freestyle Wrestling Tournament, Matt Slutzky and Keith Spurlin knew they were a long way from the Maryland high school wrestling scene.
A couple of All-Metro picks and three-time county champs, Slutzky and Spurlin matchedtheir talents against the nation's top high school wrestlers last weekend at the nationals in Warrensburg, Mo.
Neither fared well, but both came home with a new respect for howtough the competition can be.
"It's unbelievable," said Slutzky, a three-time state champion who will go to Aberdeen High School this fall. "This tournament brings you back to reality. When you've been competing in Maryland, you forget about how hard (the rest of the competition) is. There were a lot of kids here from big wrestling states like Ohio and Pennsylvania."
Slutzky and Spurlin, members of the Maryland Wrestling Association's Junior Freestyle team, wrestled in the two weight classes that drew the most competitors.
Each had morethan 130 rivals in his weight class. There was no seeding. Wrestlerspicked chips to determine their draws.
Slutzky won one match in the 132-pound weight class, but lost his next two in the double elimination tournament. In his final match, he met Ryan Kringle of North Dakota, who had won the junior national Greco-Roman championship just acouple of days before. Kringle decisioned Slutzky, 6-0.
Spurlin, a recent Edgewood High graduate who finished third in the state championships twice, lost his first two matches at 143 pounds. He just shook his head when asked about the competition.
"It was something. Ilearned a lot about freestyle wrestling in general. You're in the biggest tournament in the world and watching the best people in the nation," said Spurlin, who is heading to James Madison University in Virginia this fall.
After their elimination, Slutzky and Spurlin, whohave been buddies since the second grade, watched much of the remaining competition.
"That was the hardest part," said Slutzky. "I wasupset about losing, but I wanted to wrestle. I didn't really want towatch. I wanted to be on the mat. Even if they had had a losers bracket, it would have been better."
Soon after school was out in June, Slutzky and Spurlin began traveling to tournaments around the stateto keep in shape and to qualify for the state team.
Slutzky won all of the tournaments he entered in Maryland, and Spurlin posted victories in most, including those in Annapolis, Salisbury and Hagerstown. Both won gold medals at the Maryland State Games.
For most of the summer, they also fought off injuries. Slutzky, The Sun's Wrestler of the Year in 1991, was recovering from a torn ligament in his knee that sidelined him for five weeks soon after the state championships last March. The same kind of injury kept him out of the junior nationals two years ago.
Spurlin battled a shoulder strain that left himvulnerable in both of his matches last weekend.
Slutzky's injury also kept him from wrestling against the Russian junior national teamin early May. Spurlin, however, was healthy, and was one of just three Americans to beat his Soviet opponent.
Both wrestlers now turn their thoughts to the upcoming season. Slutzky will go for his fourthstate title. Spurlin will attempt to walk on to the team at James Madison, where he plans to major in architecture.
Although Spurlin didn't attract much attention from college coaches, his strong showingthis summer should give him a boost into the winter season.
"I think he can make the team, because he's still improving," said Slutzky, who has already drawn the attention of college scouts. "A lot of people in high school criticized him and said he didn't do much, but hehad gotten a lot better over the summer."