Even surgery can't stop Plienis Wizard of mat: McDonogh's heavyweight has headlock on prep foes and now looks forward to wrestling for national power Nebraska.

February 11, 1996|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

When McDonogh heavyweight J. R. Plienis signed a full scholarship to attend nationally No. 2-ranked Nebraska, it was the first time a Maryland wrestler had taken advantage of the early signing period.

Plienis, a 230-pound two-time All-Metro pick, is ranked No. 2 nationally by Matside Magazine, whose ratings are published in USA Today. And a year from now, he'll be wrestling for the defending Big Eight champion Cornhuskers.

"I've been following them every day. They just lost, 20-15, to Iowa [the top-ranked team in the nation] in a dual meet," said Plienis, who is 111-11 in high school, including last year's titles at the private school states and the National Preps.

Plienis is 21-0 with all 15 of his pins being in the first period. He has won his second straight Maryland Independent Schools state title. Two victories have been decisions, three others forfeits, and another by default. Only Mount St. Joseph's Ben Dyer, an 11-4 loser, and Blair Academy's Chris Denker, a 7-5 loser, have gone the distance with Plienis.

"I'm definitely trying to get it over quick. The faster the better," said Plienis, who used his signature move, the headlock, to record both his fastest (15 seconds) and slowest (1:35) pins. "I'm still not 100 percent where I want to be."

That statement belies his performance at the mid-December McDonogh Tournament, where Plienis became the event's first four-time champ, throwing Gilman's 260-pound Tony Barco with a headlock for a 36-second pin.

A week later, Plienis won the Delaware Middle-Atlantic Tournament in Newark, also receiving an award for an average pin time of 1:07 in three bouts.

Then came a major scare for Plienis: An arthroscopic operation ++ on his knee that nearly ended his senior season.

"It's hard to hold J.R. back, but he'd been experiencing some swelling and tenderness in his left knee, and it would lock up on him, occasionally," said his mother, Cheryl Plienis.

"We figured he should have the operation at a time that would allow him to recoup and still participate in the end-of-the-year tournaments."

The operation revealed "a small tear in the cartilage in his knee joint," Cheryl said.

But 10 days after the knee damage was repaired, J.R. was back on the mat, pinning his Calvert Hall opponent in 27 seconds.

"J.R.'s a student of the sport, and we feel we can mold him into a dominant force on the college level," said Nebraska coach Tom Neumann. "We started recruiting him when he was 16, so he's still very young."

But Plienis learned early what it's like to be on the losing side.

"Uncoordinated, awkward, clumsy" is how his father, Ron Plienis Sr., described his son during his first seven seasons as a 100-pound 6-year-old with the Dundalk Hawks. J.R. mostly got pinned back then. "His first two matches he got decked in under a minute combined," Ron Sr. said.

Plienis persevered, gaining confidence with the 145-pound state crown at age 13. He was third in the league tournament as a McDonogh freshman, and turned the corner as a sophomore, going 28-3 with 19 pins.

The next April, Plienis wrestled at 209 pounds, placing first in both the Greco-Roman and freestyle events at the Cadet World Team Trials in Chicago. It was his second straight year winning the Greco-Roman crown, and an improvement on a runner-up effort in freestyle the year before.

Competing nationally at 209 pounds in July, Plienis went 7-0 in the Greco-Roman category and 9-0 in freestyle, pinning 10 of his 16 opponents, including a 53-second fall in his Greco-Roman title bout.

Plienis was Maryland's first double-event Cadet national champion, earning USA Wrestling's Cadet Belt as the nation's best 15- to 16-year-old, and a No. 1 national ranking in both disciplines.

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