From the outset of the 1991-92 wrestling season, The Baltimore Sun's top-ranked Old Mill Patriots were expected to breeze to an unprecedented fourth straight Class 4A-3A state title.
That is no longer the prevailing attitude among state coaches.
The Patriots' toughest competition is Montgomery County's Region II titlist Quince Orchard, which has 11 wrestlers -- including 1991 state heavyweight runner-up Dave Vernier -- going to this weekend's state meet at Western Maryland College.
In Class 2A-1A, several teams are also expected to challenge defending state champion Owings Mills. The No. 9 Eagles will have to contend with No. 3 North Carroll and No. 8 Oakland Mills.
Also a threat to Owings Mills are Smithsburg, the Region I runner-up to North Carroll, Rising Sun, a Region IV team from Cecil County, and Mardela, from the Eastern Shore.
"Mardela's a sleeper. Other than that, it's up in the air and I have no predictions," said Owings Mills coach Guy Pritzker, whose Eagles went 15-2 in dual meets and raised his nine-year record to 100-20.
"Smithburg's four top seeds look pretty good," said Oakland Mills coach Dan Ricker, whose Scorpions were seventh at the 4A-3A level last year.
Ricker's Region II champion Scorpions (eight wrestlers) are in the thick of things, led by defending heavyweight state champion Monte Spencer and three-time county champ Adam Seidman (130).
"It depends on how the kids react in the first round," said Ricker. "Until then, you just don't know."
Owings Mills scored a class 2A-1A state-record 125 points last year. Similarly, Old Mill won its third title with a state-record 130.5 points. The Patriots appear even stronger, having set both county (229 points) and regional (267) tournament scoring records this season.
"We've been there before, but you still feel the pressure," said Old Mill coach Mike Hampe, whose 15-0 Patriots raised his 17-year dual-meet record to 175-22-3. "We feel we've had a tough schedule, so our experience is genuine and our records aren't inflated."
The Patriots, top-ranked by the Maryland State Wrestling Association ahead of Quince Orchard, will send a state-record 12 wrestlers with five top seeds. Old Mill's returning state qualifiers include defending champion Brian Layman (171, 25-2), state-runner-up Steve Lundstrom (112, 22-10), and third-place finishers John Bliss (145, 26-0), Ernie Longazel (189, 26-1) and heavyweight Don Marco (27-2).
Although No. 5 Randallstown is ranked behind No. 4 Annapolis in The Sun poll, the Jeff Langrehr-coached Rams -- with nine qualifiers including returning state champion Mike Jensen -- are the area's top threat to stop the Region IV champion Patriots. Randallstown, ranked No. 7 by the MSWA, joins two Charles County contenders in McDonough and Lackey, which qualified nine and eight wrestlers respectively from Region III.
McDonough has four top seeds, including defending state champion Marty Margolis (130), and Lackey has three. Frederick, the Region II runner-up to Quince Orchard, is a dark horse, taking nine wrestlers with a pair of No. 1 seeds.
"Obviously the first round is critical," said Langrehr, whose Region I champion Rams (13-1) dethroned Owings Mills in the county tournament. "The team with the most first-round survivors sets the pace."
Pritzker's two-time defending Region II champion Eagles are sending seven, including five top seeds and defending individual state champs Grant Johnson (160) and Greg Kessler (130).
North Carroll brings the most 2A-1A wrestlers with nine, including three top seeds and two-time state runner-up Tom Dell (135).
"We've got numbers, so we should be right there," said North Carroll coach Dick Bauerlein. "But it still looks like a six- or seven-team race."