From molehill to mountain

Wrestling: Mount Hebron won one match in four seasons before a group of freshmen sparked a major reversal of fortune. Now seniors, they lead a Vikings team that's No. 1 in the state.

January 15, 2002|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

Zach Wendal, Andrew Benicewicz and Scott Bissett ventured into the unknown as freshmen, trying out for a Mount Hebron wrestling team that had won one match in the previous four seasons.

And they didn't exactly take to the sport like ducks to water.

"I had never tried wrestling, had no idea what it was," Bissett said. "I remember I couldn't even do a half-nelson. For about a month or two months, I was like, `How do you do this?' "

Wendal didn't fare much better: "I wasn't good at sprawling or shooting takedowns. Certain moves just didn't work for me."

Still, all three lasted the season, with varying results.

"I liked the intensity of wrestling, but I hated my first year," Benicewicz said. "I was going to quit, but then everyone talked me back into it."

Three years later, Benicewicz is glad he stuck around.

The trio is among 11 returning starters to a Vikings squad that is ranked No. 1 both in The Sun and in the state by the Maryland State Wrestling Association. At 9-0, the Vikings are on the verge of eclipsing last year's single-season school record for dual-meet victories (12-3).

Bissett is the defending Howard County champion at 171 pounds. Benicewicz (130) was fourth in the region and sixth at states last season, and Wendal (125) was third at counties, second at regions and fourth at states.

They are part of a Mount Hebron team that is considered a contender for the Class 4A-3A state title.

"We started out just doing it for fun, but it wasn't always that way ... the three-hour practices, going hard every day, going to camps in the off-season," said Benicewicz, who is 15-3 with 11 pins, and has placed fourth in two tournaments. "But it's all starting to pay off."

There are no championship honors on the walls or ceilings in the Mount Hebron cafeteria, which serves as the team's wrestling room. But every now and then, fifth-year coach Mike Duffy takes the team into the gymnasium, where a lone banner hangs, representing the program's only team wrestling title - the Howard County version won in 1974.

"We'll look at that banner and remind them that there were only four schools in the county at the time, and I was only a couple of months old," Duffy said. "They enjoy being part of something that hasn't existed in their lifetime. We keep pushing that. It's a motivator to these kids."

Another motivator is the shiny, white singlets purchased this year, part of a uniform to be worn only by wrestlers who reach tournament finals.

"People might think it's cocky," said assistant coach Brian Neal, a one-time state runner-up at heavyweight for Howard High, "but those white singlets are an incentive to these kids."

The Vikings won the season-opening Magruder Tournament, beating both River Hill, the defending Howard County tournament and dual-meet champion, and Montgomery County power Damascus, winner of three state tournament and two state dual-meet crowns. They followed that up with a victory at the Arundel Tournament, ending a streak of four straight wins by then-No. 1 Archbishop Curley, the defending Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association and private schools state tournament champion.

Mike Mengel (17-0 at 160 pounds) won at both the Arundel and Magruder tournaments. Chris Garrow (189) won at Magruder. Wendal and freshman Justin Neal (heavyweight) were runners-up at both tournaments and Grant Gormly (119) a runner-up at Arundel.

"Each tournament, we say, `This is the bare minimum we have to do to win,' " said Mengel, a senior and two-time state runner-up. "If you're projected to place third, then your goal is to make the finals. I don't think we've been lucky in anything we've done. It's just wrestling to our capabilities."

The Vikings face their most difficult obstacle thus far in this weekend's Hammond tournament, considered Maryland's most competitive invitational.

"Winning the [Hammond] invitational isn't our main goal. We see it as a way to improve and build for the state tournament," Duffy said. "My first year in the Magruder Tournament, we scored one point. This year, we knew we had a chance to win it. Our goals are very high."

Last week, the Vikings had shutouts over Calvert Hall and Howard. They represent a lineup that has only four starters who wrestled before high school and whose wrestlers have a team grade-point average in the 3.5 range.

"I don't think we're a physically intimidating team; it's more like we're the skinny bookworms," said Mengel, whose father, Jim, is another of Duffy's assistants. "But when it's time to come out and wrestle, we drop the book bag, throw on the singlet and go out there and go after it like animals."

Josh Pruett, Duffy's fourth assistant, calls the Mount Hebron wrestlers "very coachable, the type of kids who, if you tell them to go out and gnaw on a tree, they'll do it if they believe it'll make them a winner.

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