Kessler just keeps going and going Record run: The Owings Mills junior wrestler takes a 98-0 mark into the Baltimore County tournament today.

February 16, 1996|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

In many ways, Steve Kessler is an average teen-ager. He's "down" with popular clothing and haircuts, and has school work, social activities and a weekend job. And his musical tastes range from rap's Wu-Tang Clan to heavy metal's Pantera.

But when it comes to wrestling, the Owings Mills student sets an entirely different tempo.

The two-time All-Metro choice is a public school record 98-0 (45 pins, 29 technical falls) entering today's Baltimore County tournament, where he can reach 102 wins.

In addition, the two-time state champ and the only freshman to go unbeaten, can attain some major milestones before he

graduates:

* He can become the second four-time state champion -- Aberdeen's Matt Slutzky (122-5-1) was the first in 1992 -- and the first to go unbeaten over four seasons.

* He can become only the second wrestler from a public school to complete an unbeaten high school career since Paint Branch's three-time champ Brian Crane (83-0, 1983). By season's end, Kessler can tie Lenny Bernstein (110-0, 1984-85-86) of Bullis Prep, a private school in Montgomery County.

* He can become the third four-time county tournament champ, the others being Hereford's Rob Hough (1990) and Gary Harris (1994) of Owings Mills, Milford Mill and Randallstown.

Only a junior, Kessler compares favorably to two of the county's greats: Randallstown's two-time state champ Mike Jenson (95-1-1), ranked No. 10 nationally at Rider College, and Owings ,, Mills' triple state champ Grant Johnson (115-5-1), now at Boston College.

"Steve's got an awareness only present in the great ones," said county coordinator of athletics Ron Belinko, who coached 27 years at Overlea and Eastern Tech. "For example, if you're putting in a headlock, and it's not working, some wrestlers try to force it. But Steve uses his opponent's momentum to make it look effortless.

"I've seen kids look great as freshmen, only to get slowed by pressure, mind games. Steve hasn't gotten stagnant, and he wants to face the best."

Last year, Kessler was put on his back for the only time of his high school career, but won the bout by a technical fall.

"There's nothing special about my approach. No rituals, other than a good half-hour sweat before a match," said Kessler, who )) is ranked No. 1 in Maryland at 145.

"I know how badly guys want to beat me. They come out hard, like I know I have to. But at my best, I feel no one can beat me. not cockiness, it's confidence. I'm prepared to win."

Growing up, Steve sparred with two older brothers on a small basement mat. The eldest, Kevin, 24, was a state champ at Chesapeake-BC in 1989. Greg, 20, now at Rider College, was a three-time Owings Mills state champ and a High School All-American with a 125-5-1 career record.

Kessler's 36-0 freshman season marked the first time a Maryland freshman went unbeaten to win states. In an overtime 130-pound title bout, he overcame a 4-1 deficit against Northeast's Matt Jewer despite being out-weighed.

Last year's title was an even more difficult 3-2 decision over Francis Scott Key's two-time state champ, Randy Owings.

"As a freshman, I figured maybe he'd place in the county, and as a longshot, states. After he won his first county title, I asked, 'do you realize you're undefeated?' " said his father, Larry Kessler.

"His mother [Claudette] and I were shocked when he won states. I never expected it to go so far, through illness, injuries, other variables."

The less mature Steve Kessler, relied more on sheer will and determination. Now he is bigger, stronger and smarter, with more finesse and poise after a summer weight-training regimen with Greg. His chicanery this year has taken down 26 others, all but three being at 152.

"His technique is phenomenal," said Overlea's Robin Watkins (18-2), twice a loser to Kessler. "He moves you off-balance, sets you up. He knows to hit a move when you least expect."

This from a mediocre junior leaguer.

"In juniors, he had this insatiable desire to learn, and was always wrestling the older kids even though he didn't always win," said coach Guy Pritzker, whose Eagles have won three each in county and state crowns. "But I always said if his maturity caught up, he'd be a great wrestler. He's been accomplishing the near-impossible."

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