Arundel coach Buddy Hepfer's Wildcats surprised him by winning last year's Arundel Holiday Invitational wrestling tournament for the 10thtime in 12 years.
After his club edged second-place Meade, 198-190, for last year's crown, Hepfer said: "I had no dreams we would win this."
A nightmare more aptly describes what has befallen the Wildcats on the eve of the tournament's 13th year. When first-round action begins tomorrow at 2:30 p.m., Hepfer will be without two of his best wrestlers.
No. 2-ranked defending tournament champion Phil Meenan (103) is out of town, and Chad Bawell (119), who was fourth last year, isinjured. Arundel's Greg Booth (189) returns to defend his title but should do battle in a competitive weight class.
"No doubt, it's going to be tougher than last year," said Hepfer. "But I think you haveto give Chesapeake the clearest shot to win. They've . . . got so much balance."
County representatives Arundel, Chesapeake, Northeast, North County, Meade and Glen Burnie will compete with Howard Countycontender Wilde Lake and Baltimore County's unbeaten Dundalk.
Forthe second straight year, three-time Class 4A/3A state champion Old Mill is headed for the 15th annual St. Stephens/St. Agnes tournament in Alexandria, Va.
Coach Mike Hampe's Patriots entered last year'stournament ranked No. 22 by the Amateur Wrestling News and finished third in the tournament with 124 points, behind perennial Virginia powers Robinson (141.5) and Gar-Field (132.5).
The tournament is so tough that Old Mill's eventual state champ, Brent Layman, lost his 135-pound semifinal bout, 13-7, to St. Stephen's three-time All-Metro Khalil Abdul-Malik, who went 37-0 on the year.
With a career mark of 121-7 (6-0 this year), Abdul-Malik, now a 140-pound senior, is approaching both his school's all-time win record (130) and the state mark (140).
"This is the kind of competition we need," said Hampe, whose Patriots were ranked No. 21 in USA Today's preseason rankings. "Ireally don't know what teams are going to be there, but I know they'll be good ones. It's only going to make us better."
No. 3-ranked heavyweight Don Marco, third in last year's state tournament, and No.5-ranked defending state champion Brian Layman (171) were champs at St. Stephens/St. Agnes a year ago. No. 2 John Bliss (145) and No. 6 Steve Lundstrom (112) were third, and No. 3 Ernie Longazel was fourth.
In the Arundel tournament, Hepfer has good reason to favor Chesapeake. Tom Slichter's Cougars, who placed third (183.5 points) last year, are off to a 3-0 start and are coming off a second-place finish in Chesapeake's invitational two weeks ago.
Barring any late changes, here is a brief look at the favorites in each weight class of the Arundel tournament:
* 103 -- Meenan's absence means no rematch with Northeast freshman Marty Kusick, who defeated him, 6-3, during an earlier dual meet. But Meade senior Rich Pachoca was the runner-up to Meenan here last year. Pachoca was fourth at Chesapeake, where Kusickwas the champion. But Chesapeake sophomore Mark Downey was third at the Arundel tournament last year and is not to be overlooked.
* 112 -- Chesapeake senior Rich Brown will have to get past Northeast's Mike Kusick, Marty's twin brother, who hammered him, 16-0, for the Chesapeake tournament crown.
* 119 -- Like his preceding teammates, Northeast's Steve Smiddy is 8-0 and looking for another title to go along with the one from Chesapeake. Wilde Lake's Nick Yoon was an Arundel tournament runner-up last year and will have to get past Smiddy toget the crown.
* 125 -- This could be the toughest class, beginning with Dundalk state qualifier Darin Loveland, a runner-up at 112 last year. As his third-place finish at Chesapeake confirms, Chesapeake's Ron Alexander seems ready to improve on last year's third-place 119-pound performance. Alexander edged Glen Burnie's Mark Nevin, 5-2, and Nevin is eager for revenge. Northeast's Matt Jewer tied Wilde Lake's Antione Harris in a dual-meet battle, and neither is a pushover.
* 130 -- Wilde Lake sophomore Chris Turner is on a roll at 7-2, butMeade senior Bill Fisher defeated Loveland for the crown last year. Chesapeake's Doug Horton, the county tournament runner-up, placed second at Chesapeake and would like to go a step farther.
* 135 -- This one's up for grabs, so Arundel's Rick Gladwell, a Meade tournamentrunner-up; Meade's Mike Walker (10-16-1 last year); or Chesapeake's Rob Zittle, who was third in the junior varsity county, all have a shot.
* 140 -- Dundalk's No. 4-ranked defending champion Rick Staab was fourth in last year's 4A/3A state tournament, but Wilde Lake's county and regional champion Bobby Farace will be a stiff test. Glen Burnie's Chris Smith was a runner-up at Meade.
* 145 -- Chesapeake'sSteve Kopp, third in the Cougar Invitational, is tops in the Arundeltournament, but Northeast's Bill Katzenberger (5-2) should challenge.
* 152 -- Wilde Lake's Robert McGrain (5-3) has lost twice now toNortheast's Al Grunder (7-3), and Chesapeake's Ron Shirk, third at Arundel at 140 last year, has lost once to Grunder. This is their chance for revenge.
* 160 -- Glen Burnie's John Wehn, a runner-up lastyear, will
have to fend off several contenders. Vying for the title will be Chesapeake's Tony Perillo (fourth at 152 last year), WildeLake's Mike Green (a 5-3 record) and North County's Tim Takovich (a runner-up at the Meade tournament).
* 171 -- The undefeated Booth likely will tangle with Wilde Lake's county champion Nate Casella, who was third last year, but Chesapeake's Cougar Invitational champion Shawn Somers is looking for another title.
* 189 -- North County'sKim, a runner-up at the Cougar Invitational, was 22-2 with 18 pins last year.
* Hvy -- Chesapeake's Kevin Sellers was third at 189 last year, where Meade's Rich Katona was a runner-up. They're the two favorites.