Owings Mills' Johnson outclasses competition Hopes to win third state title in row

January 17, 1993|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,Staff Writer

Every afternoon, no matter the weather, an 8-year-old Grant Johnson and his older brother, Gerard, were there.

They would wait at the Crown gas station just below the Morningside Heights apartment complex in Owings Mills, for their junior-league wrestling coach, Guy Pritzker, to pick them up for practice in his station wagon.

But Grant didn't want to be there.

"I was a little baby. A punk. Always crying and complaining," said Johnson, now a 171-pound Owings Mills senior. "I didn't want to sweat. I didn't want to work. I hated everything about wrestling practice."

That's an attitude Grant Johnson has outgrown.

The two-time state champion is often the first -- or at least among the first -- in the wrestling room of two-time 2A-1A state champion Owings Mills. And he's always among the last to leave.

And if Pritzker's not there, Johnson simply begins practice without him.

"When I get down there at quarter 'til three, he's already got practice started and has everybody doing exercises," said Pritzker, the Eagles' (9-0) head coach.

"Grant sets a model for the rest of the team. He's just got so much to offer."

Johnson's skills, along with his 990 Scholastic Aptitude Test score, have attracted the interest of top-notch programs like Penn State, Pennsylvania, Clarion, Clemson and Pittsburgh.

Former Clarion wrestler and 1977 world champion, Wade Schalles, is a huge fan of Johnson's.

"Most people are impressed with Grant's athletic talent, but don't realize that he's also a quality young man," said Schalles, a 16-time national champion. "There are a lot of kids who, in reality, just won't make it in life, but Grant's not one of them. The reason people have

taken such great interest in him is because he's just a class act."

Johnson took his act to St. Paul's, Minn., over the summer, where the two-time, first-team All-Metro pick wrestled with the Northwest Wrestling Club's Maryland National team at 165 pounds. He earned All-American honors with his seventh-place finish and a 7-2 record in the Asics Tiger Junior Freestyle Nationals.

St. Paul's coach Desi McNelis coached the National Team for 13 years until three years ago, producing "eight or 10 All-Americans." including Mount St. Joseph's Rico Chiapparelli, who went on to become an NCAA champion.

"I saw Grant wrestle [Bullis' former top-ranked] John Horwat over the summer, and he just humiliated John. That was a good gauge to see how good Grant had gotten," said McNelis.

"The nationals have gotten a lot bigger, so it's harder to win. But Grant's excellent in all the skills, with maturity, composure, technique and just a good sense of positioning."

Johnson is unaccustomed to losing.

He went 27-3 as a freshman county runner-up and placed third in the regional and state meets. Two of his victories came over Mardela's Mike Lowe, an eventual two-time state champ.

Johnson was 28-1 as a 130-pound sophomore, with his lone loss, 7-6, coming after a Delaware wrestler reversed him in the final seconds. Last year, Johnson (33-1) avenged his only loss, 2-0, in the 160-pound state-title bout.

"I believe that Grant Johnson has as much or more potential to do well in Division I wrestling than any Maryland wrestler in the past decade," said Haswell Franklin, whose Maryland State Wrestling Association has Johnson ranked No. 1.

So far, no one on the high school level has been able to compete with Johnson. Of his 16 wins, 14 are first-period pins with a technical fall and a forfeit.

So he spent a day wrestling college guys. And as the only high school entrant in the Wilkes Open late last month, Johnson went 2-1.

All the attention he's getting hasn't taken Johnson's focus from his primary goal: to become the first wrestler from Baltimore County to win three state titles, and to have placed the fourth year.

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