Wrestler Ennis' Odyssey to W. Lake is no tall tale

Jamaican native proves a fast learner on mat and in the classroom

High School

March 02, 2001|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

Meet Wilde Lake wrestler Matt Ennis ... just your typical high school scholar-athlete.

He's sharp in math, smart in history, has a 4.0 grade-point average for this, his junior year, despite juggling school and wrestling. On the mat, he's 29-1 and arguably Maryland's best 119-pounder, favored to win a state title in this weekend's 4A-3A state wrestling tournament at Western Maryland College.

He's no slouch in English either, where his favorite books include literary epics like Homer's "The Odyssey," Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," and Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle."

Not too bad for a kid who couldn't speak a lick of English not too many years ago.

"I always tease my teammates, `the reason why I'm a good wrestler and I'm so strong is because I'm Jamaican,' " Ennis says. "You've got to be tough to survive down there. I credit a lot of my skill to being Jamaican."

It's easy to see why characters like Ulysses or Ahab might appeal to both the scholar and the athlete in Ennis, considering his own life has already been part adventure, part epic.

Moving to the United States with aunts, uncles, his mother, Marvia Williams, and his younger brother, Martino Brown, at the age of 10 wasn't easy, especially when considering that like a majority of Jamaicans, Ennis spoke only Jamaican Creole, or patois, a mixture of English and African forms and words. And, as one might guess, the temperature change wasn't exactly met with open arms. "I did not like it at all," Ennis says with a smile. "It's colder than anything up here. The first time I saw snow, I thought it was soap suds. My mother still teases me to this day about that."

But, Ennis says, he realized quickly that the opportunities the United States offered was a fair trade-off for not having the beach nearby. It meant, however, he'd have to relearn everything he'd known since he was born.

"Nobody could understand me at first," Ennis says. "In elementary school, my teacher had to meet with me separately to help me learn English, and my mom brought me up not to speak patois anymore, which made it tough."

He had no trouble, however, understanding the international language of boys everywhere - sports. While Ennis the student began to take shape, Ennis the athlete was well on his way. By the time he arrived at Wilde Lake, he was already showing off his skills as a football player, starting on the junior varsity as a freshman. And when he bumped into wrestling coach Adam Eldridge on his way to class one day, it didn't take much coaxing to get him to come out for the wrestling team.

"Right away, I saw that Matt has an amazing ability to learn," Eldridge says. "He's also the hardest worker I've ever been around. He'll study a move, try it three times, then use it in a match. He's very, very intense."

So intense, in fact, that teammates quickly began referring to him as "Coach Ennis" because he was on them, pushing them in practice just as hard as Eldridge. If he felt like the heavyweights weren't working hard enough one day, Ennis would drill with them until he was satisfied they were pushing as hard as he was.

After a promising freshman year at 103 pounds, Ennis finished second in the county at 119 as a sophomore. Now, he's a feared junior after winning the Howard County and Class 4A-3A North region tournaments. His only loss, against John Hefner Jr. of Delone Catholic of McSherrystown, Pa., was a 5-4 squeaker.

"I learned a lot from that match," Ennis said. "That's important. You can lose a match, but it's a lot worse if you don't learn anything from it. I'm always learning, pushing myself, wanting to know more. It's just the way I am."

State wrestling

What: Class 4A-3A, 2A-1A state tournaments

When: Today, tomorrow

Where: Western Maryland College, Gill Center

Directions: From I-695 (Baltimore Beltway) take I-795 West. Follow exit sign for Westminster (Rt. 140). Continue into Westminster. Turn left at Center Street across from mall. Take right on Main Street. Bear right onto West Main Street. Take second entrance into campus (near athletic fields).

Sessions: Today - preliminaries, 2:30-6:30; quarterfinals, 7:30-10; Tomorrow - consolation preliminaries, 10-noon; championship semifinals, consolation quarterfinals; noon-2:30; consolation semifinals, 2:30 to 3:30; fifth/sixth-place, consolation finals, championship finals (simultaneously on six mats), 5.

Admission: All-session pass is $15.

Individual-session tickets are $5.

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