Wethington salvages senior success Scorpion goes out as champion after lost football season

February 26, 1993|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Staff Writer

Justin Wethington still thinks about the football season that might have been.

Last fall, everyone expected big things from Wethington, an agile 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker who had achieved stardom as a junior at Oakland Mills. Opposing coaches were trying to figure out ways to contain him. Major colleges were lining up to recruit him.

That scenario changed drastically in the season's first game, when Wethington suffered a lower leg fracture. He didn't play until the final three games of a lost season, both for him and the 3-7 Scorpions. Although Wethington performed decently on the defensive line, most colleges, upon learning of his injury, crossed him off their lists.

But don't feel sorry for Wethington. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he has spent the winter quietly erasing one of the more disappointing periods of his life.

First, he received a full grant-in-aid from Bucknell, where he plans to play linebacker. Then, he received an invitation to try out next month for this summer's Chesapeake Football Classic, which will match this year's top 33 seniors from Maryland against those of Virginia.

Last week, when Wethington's hand was raised after pinning Hammond heavyweight Jimmy Jackson in the final match of the county wrestling tournament, he wrapped up another chapter of a memorable senior year. He completed a perfect season against the county with his first league title.

"I still think about it [the football season] sometimes, but you can't change the past, so you might as well play the cards you've been dealt," said Wethington, who will take an 18-3 record -- including 11 pins -- into this weekend's 1A-2A regional tournament at Hammond.

Oakland Mills wrestling coach Steve Carnahan remembers asking Wethington to come out for his team. It was shortly after Wethington had begun physical therapy. Carnahan stopped him the school parking lot, as Wethington was headed to the football field to watch the Scorpions' practice.

"I knew this was a kid who had enormous potential. I knew he wanted to do something. I was just hoping that something would be wrestling," said Carnahan, who recalled when Wethington first gave wrestling a try as a sophomore under then-coach Dan Ricker in the 189-pound class.

Like most first-year wrestlers, Wethington struggled at the start, losing six straight matches. But he had all the qualities a coach craves: strength, balance, the ability to learn quickly from his mistakes. By the end of the year, he showed promise.

Wethington thought about Carnahan's suggestion for a week. He originally had planned to try out for the basketball team, although he never had played that sport at Oakland Mills. The more he considered it, the more sense Carnahan's sales pitch made.

"I wanted to play basketball more, but then I thought which would be better for my leg? It was probably wrestling," said Wethington, who skipped wrestling in his junior year.

That year, he already weighed nearly 230 pounds, and Oakland Mills already had a heavyweight named Monte Spencer, who went on to win his second state title. Wethington decided that, given a second chance, he wanted a shot at some of that glory.

"I didn't get the glory I wanted from football. The No. 1 thing is, I wanted to prove something to myself," he added. "If I was riding the bench in basketball, I wouldn't prove anything. I wanted to know I did something, instead of having a terrible senior year. I thought I'd shine more in wrestling."

Because the injury limited his activity, Wethington was out of shape when wrestling practice began. And it showed early. In the season-opening Annapolis Tournament, Mark Smith of Francis Scott Key, one of the state's top-ranked heavyweights, pinned Wethington. A week later, however, Wethington bounced back to beat Smith in a dual meet, 16-8.

He suffered a setback a week later, when he strained some ligaments in his shoulder in the Lackey tournament. But after resting the shoulder over the Christmas break, Wethington came back strong by winning the Arundel tournament. That started an unbeaten run through the county that helped the Scorpions rebound from a 1-6 start to finish 6-6 and take Hammond down to the wire in the county tournament. Hammond edged the Scorpions, 220-212 1/2 .

"Without Justin, we wouldn't have been able to challenge Hammond. Even when you come up short, it's nice to have the final say [in the heavyweight class]," Carnahan said. "He's been a tremendous shot in the arm.

"I'm glad that, through wrestling, Justin has been able to salvage his senior year. Now, he can leave here, knowing he was a champion. And he'll always be a champion."

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