Hammond gears up for big finish Bears wrestlers focus on tourneys

February 16, 1993|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Contributing Writer

Coach Bill Smith knows it. His wrestlers know it. Hammond's wrestling program is entering arguably the most critical period in its history.

This is the year the Golden Bears must finally put up. This is the year they must win the big one. Starting with this weekend's county tournament and continuing into the 2A-1A regionals the following week, this is the time for the Bears to shine like they never have.

Too much pressure? The Bears have been putting pressure on themselves since the first day of practice. Still smarting from last year's high expectations and disappointing finish -- they won the county's dual-meet title but wound up second to Oakland Mills in the county and regional tourneys -- the Bears put together their best regular season ever.

They finished 13-1 in dual-meet competition, including their second straight 7-0 season against the county. They won two of the three tournaments they entered. Unlike last year, when Hammond and Oakland Mills came into the county tournament as co-favorites, the Bears unquestionably are the team to beat this year.

"Last year, we really put a lot of eggs in the winning-the-dual-meets basket. This year, the kids don't have anything on their minds except winning those tournaments," Smith said. "Except for beating Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake, that's all they've thought about all year."

Indeed, the Bears have gone through the season beating opponents methodically and reciting those goals like a mantra. After the Bears downed Oakland Mills, 39-23, last month, they were noticeably subdued. Mac Goudy, Hammond's outstanding 171-pounder, shrugged and said, "We can't get too excited. This is just the first step."

Junior Dan Proulx (119) repeated Goudy's sentiments last week, after Hammond clinched its second dual-meet championship by whipping Howard, 40-22. "We're pretty good now, but we've got to get better," Proulx said. "We can't lay back now."

The Bears are preparing for this weekend's tournament with that sense of urgency.

"In the past, we've laid back a little during the last few weeks and just concentrated on running and conditioning," Smith said.

"Not this year. We're going to be wrestling hard in practice all week."

Hammond's talent can't be questioned. The Bears tore through their county schedule, beating seven opponents by an average of 36 points. They beat Oakland Mills, Wilde Lake and Howard, their closest competitors, by an average of 14.

Six Hammond wrestlers -- Goudy, Proulx, John Motley (130), Erin Woodward (145), Josh Stokes (152) and Pat Brennan (189) -- already have won at least 20 matches. Every Hammond wrestler who has been in the lineup all year has a winning record.

This year's team represents the culmination of some luck and mostly long hours from Smith and assistant coach Paul Dirienzo.

The foundation for Hammond's success was laid by Jeff Starnes. He took over in 1983, when Hammond was at rock bottom. Over the next five years, with Smith as an assistant, Starnes guided the Bears into the middle of the pack.

When Smith took over three years ago, his timing could not have been better.

He inherited a promising freshman class that included Proulx, Motley and 125-pounder Brian Law. Woodward, Stokes, Goudy and Brennan were fast-improving sophomores. The raw ability was in place.

Smith, an emotional, demanding coach, took it from there. In his first year, the Bears put up mild fights for the dual-meet and county tournament titles, but fell to a much stronger Oakland Mills team. Last year, Hammond turned one corner by edging Oakland Mills in January, but stalled at the next step by losing to the Scorpions twice in February.

The Bears came into this year more determined and more seasoned. Their season, ironically, turned around after their only defeat, a three-point loss to Liberty in the season's first week. They followed that with a disappointing fifth-place finish at the Lackey tournament.

What followed was a month-long period of soul-searching and brutal practices.

"It [the Liberty defeat] brought me back to the ground floor. It helped me to re-focus, and it made us all search for reasons why it happened," Smith said. "We just tore everything down and went back to basics. We had some marathon practices."

The Bears emerged from that period with a more businesslike chip on their shoulders.

They announced their return on Jan. 9 by destroying Liberty in a rematch by 30 points. They've won every match and tournament since.

So, the stage is set for Hammond. The Bears figure to be a major player in the county's wrestling scene for years. They've already won 16 consecutive dual meets against county teams. But those victories don't mean anything right now.

"The kids are well aware that, unless they perform this weekend and next weekend, they won't get the respect they deserve," Smith said.

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