After slip, Plienis quick to regain footing at Neb. Freshman from McDonogh has high hopes in NCAAs

College Wrestling

March 19, 1998|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

After losing his first wrestle-off two months ago and being relegated to a reserve role, J. R. Plienis questioned his worth in Nebraska's seventh-ranked program.

Today, the McDonogh graduate is a record-breaking redshirt freshman and the Cornhuskers' No. 1 heavyweight entry in the NCAA tournament, which starts today at Cleveland State.

Ranked No. 16 nationally by Amateur Wrestling News, Plienis (30-11, 14 pins) is listed as a "dark-horse" contender in his weight class by InterMat magazine. He is among several wrestlers with local ties who are competing in the championships.

Others include Owings Mills' Greg Kessler (Rider, 134 pounds), Calvert Hall's Brendan James (Franklin and Marshall, 150), Mount St. Joseph's David Inkman (Virginia Tech, 142), McDonogh's Martius Harding (Virginia, 190), Coppin's Sydney Billups (142) and Maryland's Jeff Whelen (150).

Plienis was a three-time All-Metro wrestler and The Sun's All-Metro Wrestler of the Year as a senior in 1996. He is considered a strong candidate to earn All-America honors at the tournament, which he can do by finishing among the top eight in his class.

"J.R.'s not going to intimidate you with his upper-body size, but he's hard to score on and keeps it close enough that, in the end, he's in position to win," said Nebraska coach Tim Neumann. "He's got tree trunks for legs and incredible power in his hips. We expect great things from him this weekend."

But Plienis wasn't sure what to expect after his first wrestle-off at Nebraska. After losing the starting spot to Abe Boomer, Plienis phoned home. His "spirit was broken when he called us here," said his mother, Cheryl Plienis.

"J.R. questioned whether or not he should stay here," Neumann said. "But we sat him down, talked to him, told him his daily work ethic just had to improve."

In January, a refocused Plienis beat Boomer twice in one day -- pinning him once. "J.R.'s only at 60 percent of what he can be," Neumann said. "Next year, he'll be a monster."

Plienis began wrestling for the Dundalk Hawks at age 7 and was an accomplished competitor -- nationally and internationally -- before his freshman year at McDonogh.

A two-time state and National Preps champ, he was known in high school for his headlock pinning move. His 122 career high school wins included a 31-0 senior year in which he pinned a school-record 25 wrestlers in the first period.

Plienis, who signed early with Nebraska, accepting a full scholarship, earned his trip to the NCAAs in a big way -- by avenging an earlier, 10-4 loss with his 9-2 conference semifinal rout of Oklahoma's 12th-ranked John Ward.

"That was huge," said Neumann, "because Ward had beaten everyone twice in our conference. He was the No. 1 heavyweight in our conference."

The victory also made Plienis only the fifth Nebraska freshman to reach 30 wins.

"The Nebraska guys that've done it have all been three-time All-Americans, if not champs," said Plienis. "I'm going there with six teammates who feel like we'll do nothing less than become All-Americans."

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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