Rob Connolly remembers well the anticipation Christmas morning brought every year when he was a youngster. He would get up plenty early, way ahead of his parents, and dragging his dad out of bed always would take time.
"Dad would always say, 'Another hour, just one more hour,' " the Arundel senior recalled.
These days, Connolly's "just one more hour" is still far off. It's actually March 7, when the state wrestling tournament takes place at Western Maryland College.
"I don't want to think ahead, but it is like waiting for Christmas. I can't wait," said Connolly. "I know I still have to take it one match at a time."
Connolly, the No. 5-ranked Wildcats' standout 160-pounder and a team captain, has been plenty good this season.
He's ranked third in the state with a perfect 22-0 mark, 13 by pin, as the Wildcats (13-0) prepare for today's showdown against No. 8 Old Mill.
He tasted the Western Maryland College experience last winter -- his first at Arundel after moving from East Rutherford, N.J. -- when he took third at states, losing 6-5 to eventual state champ Bo Harper of Frederick.
"After last year, I told myself I want to be a state champ. That's the bottom line," said Connolly, who went 36-6 as a junior.
That meant attending a wrestling camp at Loch Haven (Pa.) University last summer, going to McDonogh School in Baltimore twice a week to wrestle freestyle during the off-season, and, now, going to the gym for a couple hours every night after practice.
"He works harder than most people," said his younger brother, Taylor, a freshman 103-pounder who's 20-0 on the Wildcats JV.
Arundel wrestling coach Buddy Hepfer first heard about Connolly two summers ago, when football coach Bill Zucco mentioned a "tough kid" from New Jersey who was playing linebacker and running back. Talk about early Christmas presents.
"Coach Zucco said he was a wrestler, but I figured I'd wait until he comes out. Nice surprise," said Hepfer. "Physically, Rob is very strong and has that will to win. He doesn't want to be denied. He belongs up there with the best and has earned his wings to be there."
Connolly didn't start wrestling until his freshman year at Rutherford High. He was planning to try out for basketball, but his football coach urged him to give wrestling a try.
"He told me to come out to a couple of practices, and if I didn't like it, I could quit. I've been wrestling ever since," said Connolly.
At Rutherford, he wrestled JV as a freshman, then went 27-7 on varsity in his sophomore year.
Arriving at Arundel, a perennial state wrestling power, was an eye-opener. The Wildcats went 18-0 last season and took the Class 3A-4A dual-meet state title, which they have a good shot at winning again.
"In Jersey, it would be me and two or three others who would win. That made it tough, from a team standpoint," Connolly said.
"When I got here, it was unbelievable. There're so many other wrestlers on the team to pick you up. One of the things that was real important to me when I was a freshman was [becoming] a team captain my senior year. Last year, I had to prove myself and win these guys over to be captain. It's a responsibility I really wanted."
Connolly said the biggest adjustment he had to make at Arundel was conditioning, a Hepfer trademark. He's learned some new things, as well, and adapted to the Wildcats' style.
Hepfer also said his standout came with something that can't be taught.
"You can't give a kid determination, and he just doesn't want to lose," said Hepfer. "He gets himself pretty psyched up. He's pretty good on his feet, a good rider and definitely goes for the fall. Being a captain this year, he's been more of a leader. He comes to the practice room and works hard."
Connolly, still undecided on a college and whether he'll play football, wrestle, or both, takes the same approach to the mat as he does for the entire season.
HTC "Before a match, I have two or three moves I plan to use on my feet, and one or two more once I take him down," he said. "I try not to get ahead of myself too much, but I want to have an idea of what I want to do."
Most of the time, it's a pin.
"I use that as motivation," he said. "I don't want to be out on the mat any longer than I have to. I like to do my business and get my points for the team."
Pub Date: 2/06/98