Plienis pays his dues, reaps wrestling rewards

August 05, 1994|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,Sun Staff Writer

He's the nation's top-ranked 15-year-old in Greco-Roman and freestyle, according to USA Wrestling, but Edgemere resident J.R. Plienis has faced his share of growing pains in his sport.

For example, during his first of seven seasons with the Dundalk Hawks -- as a 100-pound 6-year-old -- Plienis spent the majority of the time getting pinned.

"He was uncoordinated. Awkward. Clumsy. His first two matches he got decked in under a minute combined," said Ron Plienis Sr. "At 8, he wrestled 13-year-olds. At 10, he had 16-year-olds. They were just too big and strong."

Plienis got his first taste of victory at age 13, taking the 145-pound state crown. Nearly three years and 65 pounds later, he's still winning.

At 209 pounds last month, the 5-foot-11 Plienis became Maryland's first double-event Cadet national champion, going 7-0 in the Greco-Roman category and 9-0 in freestyle at the University of Columbia in Missouri.

In his 16 bouts, Plienis pinned 10 opponents, including a 53-second fall in his Greco-Roman title bout. The effort earned Plienis USA Wrestling's Cadet Belt, given annually to the nation's best 15- to 16-year-old.

"At nationals, I wrestled the greatest matches of my life," said Plienis, a McDonogh junior. "I was losing a couple of matches and just came back to win. I felt no one could stand in my way."

Next came a fifth-place finish in Chicago's Cadet World Championships, an improvement on his 10th-place effort last year.

TC Plienis, an All-Metro last season, hopes this year to win a second straight Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association crown and to improve on last year's third-place National Prep Tournament finish.

But his aspirations go beyond high school or college.

"I'd like to see him at 220 for the Olympic trials in 1996, but the year 2000 is what we're shooting for," said Ron Plienis Sr., a former two-time county runner-up and two-time regional runner-up at Dundalk High.

J.R. Plienis took third place at 220 pounds in a tournament last month for 19- and 20-year-old college freshmen and sophomores.

"He's growing so fast, there's no chance he'll make 190 in college," his father said. "[McDonogh coach] Pete Welch wants J.R. to do some serious weight lifting. I think he can make 240 by Christmas."

At 190 pounds, Welch, a former All-American at North Carolina University, has been the perfect summer training partner for Plienis.

"I want to try to stay at 189 for high school, but if the weight doesn't come off, I'll go to heavyweight," said Plienis. "If I wrestle like I know I can, I'll win at either weight."

As McDonogh's 189-pounder last winter, Plienis (28-3, 19 pins) improved on his third-place MSA finish as a freshman. At the National Preps, he lost, 13-11, in overtime to the eventual champ.

But skeptics say he's one-dimensional, his signature move being a headlock takedown. Some opponents, such as Gilman's Jamie Biddison (1-3 against Plienis), developed successful counters for the headlock.

"I've worked hard this summer on other moves," said Plienis. "I can go after the legs first. I have a great set-up for the low-ankle takedown. But if the head opens up, I'll still take the headlock."

Plienis went right to work after the National Preps in March, beginning with titles in both Greco-Roman and freestyle at the Cadet World Team Trials in Chicago. It was Plienis' second straight Greco-Roman Trials crown and an improvement on last year's freestyle runner-up effort.

A week later, he wrestled up at 220 pounds to win the freestyle state crowns at Old Mill High in Millersville. A day later in Brockport, N.Y., Plienis won the Greco-Roman Northeast Regional championship.

But as Plienis grows, so do his obstacles.

Next year, for example, there will be Mount St. Joseph's MSA champ and National Prep runner-up Kenny Hunter.

Hunter (24-5, 20 pins) is quite nimble for his size (6-foot-2, 260 pounds), and as a senior perhaps more physically mature than Plienis.

"J.R.'s very talented, but he just needs to improve his mat wrestling a little more. And, of course, he'll have to learn to handle the extra weight of the bigger guys," said Mount St. Joseph coach Paul Triplett. "And against Kenny, he'll need more than a headlock."

Plienis once faced Hunter 10 years ago "and got crushed" when Hunter had 60 pounds on him, he said.

They could meet as many as three times next winter.

"Giving up 35 to 45 pounds to a stronger guy, you need more technique to have a chance," said Ron Sr. "Kenny Hunter's no slug, but if the heavyweights aren't real careful, J.R.'ll pin 'em."

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