Atholton wrestler Bryan Radik has never been one to take the easy route.
His mornings begin well before dawn with an hour of church before school. From there, it's college prep classes and band practice, English papers, college applications and Boy Scouts. Of course, all of that is sandwiched around two hours of wrestling practice, where he has worked hard enough this season to be ranked No. 1 in the area at 130 pounds.
After all that, you figure the U.S. Military Academy, his college of choice next year, should be a breeze.
"Bryan's always had a full plate, so to speak," Atholton coach Bruce Lindblad said. "It's amazing how well he handles it all and still finds time to get in the weight room and wrestle on the weekends. He knows what it takes to succeed."
That's certainly been true this season. After three years of steady growth, the 5-foot-5 Radik has come into his own this winter, solidifying himself as one of the state's best, putting together a 20-2 record. After finishing second at the state tournament last season, Radik has been determined to make this year his. And with recent wins over his three closest competitors, he has likely earned the role of favorite heading into the county championships this month and state championships in early March.
"I really feel like I'm a lot better wrestler this season," Radik said. "I'm more well-rounded than I was when I started as a freshman. I feel it's my year to really see what I'm made of."
You could argue Radik was made of pure guts and heart two weeks ago when he beat three top wrestlers in his weight class in one week, beating River Hill's Ryan Green (who was ranked No. 1 at the time), McDonogh's Zak Johns (ranked No. 2) and Franklin's Matt Schuster (ranked No. 3). Radik also has two tournament titles this season, winning the Hammond Tournament and the Northern Garrett Tournament, where he was named Most Outstanding Wrestler.
"Bryan's not the most overpowering wrestler, but he has confidence in himself," Lindblad said. "He has good technique, and that's why he'll do well at the college level. But 90 percent of what you do on the mat is what's in your heart and in your mind, and that's Bryan's strength."
Radik's journey didn't come without its humbling moments, however. After a going 27-9 as a freshman for the Raiders at 103 pounds, Radik found out how competitive things would be at the top, losing in his second match at the state tournament. "I remember in the locker room, after his match that year, talking with him," Lindblad said. "I told him, `Well, see how big those kids are, even at 103? You know what you have to do to compete with kids that size.' "
For starters, it meant the weight room and wrestling camps, both of which Radik took on with the same discipline his brother Matt, 24, showed in his everyday life attending West Point.
"My older brothers always wrestled, so that's how I got involved with it," Radik said. "I come from a tough family. We're all kind of short and stocky."
As things progressed, the work paid off. Radik's battles with River Hill's Brandon Lauer, only the third wrestler in Maryland to ever go unbeaten over a four-year career, were learning experiences, to say the least. But in numerous matches, Radik wouldn't allow himself to get pinned, earning the respect of many of his peers.
"He could really hold that up, that every time he wrestled Lauer, he got better," Lindblad said. "After he even took him down a couple of times, I think he realized that he didn't have to be afraid. That carried over to the state finals last year. Bryan started off slow [against Kent's Donnie Yerkie], then realized, `This kid's not that much better than me,' and nearly came back and won."
Despite his success this year, there are still a number of things Radik wants to accomplish. He wants to continue as a mentor to his younger brother, Scott, who has been a boost to the varsity as a sophomore, going 9-3 at Bryan's old weight, 103 pounds. Because of Lauer's dominance, Radik has never won a Howard County title, something he wants badly this year. And he has a return trip to the state final on his mind, but with a different ending this time around.
College also looms, as it does for every high school senior about this time of year. Radik spent this weekend touring West Point, meeting with the wrestling coaches and discussing his future. It's not the path everyone would choose, but Radik believes it's the right one for him.
"The service academy appeals to me," Radik said. "It's a good education. It's tough, but it's a good structure. I've always wanted to wrestle in college, but I know now that I only want to do it at a place like the academy. It's right for me."