Ignorance is bliss, the saying goes.
But Old Mill wrestler John Bliss says his seeming ignorance on the mats cost him nine losses lastyear, and the experience was downright unenjoyable.
"I had skills that I worked on in practice, but as soon as I'd get on the mat, they kind of went out the door," said Bliss, who last year failed to capture a single tournament title after winning the Francis Scott Key crown in 10th grade.
With a 12-0 record this year, including tournament crowns at Annapolis and Virginia's St. Stephen's/St. Agnes, Bliss is the state's top-ranked 145-pound wrestler.
A year ago, he managed runner-up finishes in the county and regional tournaments and placed third at the Class 4A-3A state level, but there were times during that 30-9 season when Bliss wrestledmore like a neophyte than a second-year veteran.
"I'd just get brain-locked sometimes in matches," said Bliss, who as a sophomore was fourth in the county, regional and state tournaments.
He set a school record for single-season escapes with 78 last year, but it seemed he'd need a locksmith to escape the mental prison that made him a one-dimensional wrestler.
"At times, if you saw me out there wrestling, you'd think I didn't know what I was doing," he said.
While Bliss struggled with pinning combinations, Coach Mike Hampe and his assistant, Jay Braunstein, searched for a way to sort out the confusion in his head.
"He knew what to do, but he was just unsure of himself sometimes," said Braunstein, a former Maryland Scholastic Association champion at Baltimore's Mount St. Joseph in 1976.
"He was a two-move wrestler, and if you stopped those moves, he was in trouble."
Bliss called the county tournament last season's low point. In the title bout, he was pinned by Annapolis' Chip Cochran, now the state's No. 2-ranked 152-pound wrestler with a 14-1 record.
"That hurt," said Bliss. "He beat me three times, and I had only lost to him by a point the other times.In my mind, good wrestlers don't get pinned, and I wanted to prove to myself, more than anyone else, that I'm much better than that."
But Bliss would lose twice more by a total of two points to Cochran in the regional championship bout, and to Thomas Stone's Vince Higgs in the state semifinal.
"I was always just one match short. I guess it was psychological, but now it's changed: I don't want to be that guy anymore," he said.
"He's opened up a lot more this year," said Braunstein. "Instead of just hitting one move at atime, he's hitting one, two and three at a time. He's just so much more fluid."
The difference showed in his 7-6 victory over Riverdale Baptist's fifth-ranked, previously unbeaten Randy DeHaven in the championship bout of the season-opening Annapolis tournament. Bliss used a pin and a major decision to reach the final, where he displayed power and intensity that shocked his coaches and teammates.
"They were just pounding on each other, and John wasn't going to get bullied," said third-ranked 189-pound Ernie Longazel (12-1), who sometimes wrestles Bliss in practice. "He's got a lot more confidence this year.He just doesn't want to lose."
"He's not afraid to go head-to-head and just bang on people," said Hampe. "He's not a flashy wrestler, but he's steady and sound in the basics."
DeHaven's reputation preceded him into the match. He once took less than a minute to pin fourtournament opponents. Against the barrel-chested DeHaven, the old John Bliss might have collapsed into a defensive shell.
"If the guy was good, I'd wrestle enough not to get embarrassed," said Bliss. "But the new willpower that I feel inside is something I can't describe.I don't back off or stall out. I just want to keep wrestling."
Bliss' turnaround is even more impressive than his 139 reversals duringlast season.
In last weekend's Virginia Duals, Bliss handed Norfolk's Bobby Sereno his first loss in 13 matches. That bout was used byBraunstein in Monday's practice, in a motivational speech before 35 wrestlers.
"He was losing with a few seconds left, and then his eyes got wide, like someone had stabbed at him with a knife," said Braunstein. "Then he moves, he's gone and he wins. I'll never forget thatlight in his eyes."
Those same, deep-set blue eyes twinkle as Bliss stares at a wall adorned with pictures of past state champions just outside the Old Mill wrestling room.
"There's a lot of pride on that wall. If I win a state title, my face will be part of this school forever," Bliss said.
And in winning, he'll know true bliss.