Aberdeen wrestler Matt Slutzky, a frail-looking, bow-legged freshman, sat next to his father and coach, Dick, just before his first high school Class 2A-1A state championship bout.
Just then, the 14-year-old who as a sixth-grader bet his brother he'd become the state's first four-time champ, peered across the Western Maryland College gymnasium to see how difficult his task would be.
Laurel's two-time Class 4A-3A state champion 119-pounder, David Land, led Old Mill's Gary Baker, 9-6, with 15 seconds left, when Baker scored a five-point takedown to dethrone him.
"Anything can happen in four years," said Slutzky, who subsequently beat Fallston's Dan Jenkins, 8-2, to complete a 27-2-1 season and become only the third Maryland freshman to win a state title. "Land's loss was a good example."
And a good source of motivation for Slutzky, now a 140-pound senior. Having defeated Stephen Decatur's Mike Trower, 17-4, last March to win his third state title, he is on the verge of cashing in on his bet.
Tagged in Center Mat magazine as one of the state's top seven senior prospects, Slutzky has a 97-4-1 career record, carries a 3.6 grade-point average and is being recruited by several nationally ranked colleges. Tops on his list are No. 5 Penn State, No. 8 Clarion, No. 12 Purdue, No. 17 Syracuse, No. 22 Lehigh and No. 23 Bloomsburg.
He is top-ranked by the Maryland State Wrestling Association. A loss when he's so close to accomplishing his dream? It just isn't part of the progression.
"I've lost once every year so far, and each time, it's put me back on track," said Slutzky, who was 32-1 last year and 31-1 as a sophomore. "This time, I don't want to lose a match. And really, I don't see it happening. It shouldn't happen."
A two-time All-Metro wrestler and last year's Baltimore Sun Wrestler of the Year, Matt Slutzky is the envy of the state: He's a seemingly vulnerable champion who just keeps on winning.
His father also knows what it's like to be on top: He coached the Eagles to a third Class 2A-1A state title before being dethroned by Owings Mills last year, and in 1964, was an NCAA tournament runner-up at Syracuse.
"There's a lot of pressure that goes with winning, but Matt's more mature than he once was," said Dick Slutzky, who brings his 208-31-1 career dual meet record into the Class 4A-3A this year. "It seems like every other article Matt reads, nowadays, is about how someone wants to knock him off. But he's focused, and he's not letting any of it get to him."
Instead, he sticks to his 30-hour per week training regimen, which includes weightlifting, running 2-to-3 miles a day and wind sprints. He is toughened from his past wars with former Aberdeen state champs, Jeff and Chris Franklin. Chris was the first four-time Harford County champion and Slutzky can be the second.
"As a freshman, I used to get butterflies every time I went in the wrestling room," said Slutzky, who is 7-0 with five pins this year. "Now I spend a lot of time teaching the younger guys. I work out a lot after practice with the assistants, like [Aberdeen's former state champ Kevin Gast] -- he's a 165-pound tank."
On the mats, his style remains consistent and so technically sound, sneaky and slick, that his wins draw a similar response from his opponents: "It was a close match, he just caught me a couple of times."
Wilde Lake's county and region champion, Bobby Farace, dropped a season-opening 12-4 loss to Slutzky. Farace had a plan to beat him -- it just didn't work.
"I walked off of the mat feeling outclassed. Every move he did on me was just so precise," said Farace, a three-time state qualifier with a 10-3 record.
Chesapeake's former state champion Brian Eveleth took three chances before he finally beat Slutzky, 7-3, during Slutzky's sophomore season in the finals of the Aberdeen Invitational tournament.
"Matt had done a pretty good job of beating Brian, but Brian was ready on that particular day," said Brian Eveleth Sr., a longtime junior league coach. His son now wrestles at the University of Pennsylvania.
"I saw Matt lose his junior league state title to Chad Votta, and after that, he was like 'never again.' It's going to take super effort to beat him."
Votta, now a defending Maryland Scholastic Association champion at Mount St. Joseph, recalls that 12-8 win when they were eighth-graders.
It's mention rankles him.
"I don't mean to put him down, but I don't think he's all that he's cracked up to be," said Votta, who was a second-team All-Metro, directly behind Slutzky, last season.
Votta (15-1, 12 pins) is also a 140-pounder, who won tournament titles at Curley, Chesapeake and recently the University of California in Pennsylvania. He won't get another chance at Slutzky until after the state tournament, in the MSWA's Senior All-Star classic.
"I think he's gotten a lot better than when I last wrestled him, but too many people try to slick him. I think I'll just go at him and be physical."
Slutzky is motivated by that kind of talk. During his freshman year, he avenged an earlier loss by beating Eastern Vocational Tech's Tom Peluso, 5-4, for his first regional title.
"I don't think anyone in the Maryland schools is going to beat him," said Votta. "He's going to be a four-time state champion."