Neal quickly carves spot among heavyweight elite

Glen Burnie sophomore is 20-1, ranked No. 1

High Schools

Wrestling

February 22, 2003|By Glenn P. Graham | Glenn P. Graham,SUN STAFF

As if he wasn't already going to see enough of Old Mill senior William Bell on the wrestling mat, Glen Burnie sophomore Justin Neal decided to give football a try back in the fall.

So there were Bell and Neal, lined up in the trenches opposite each other -- a combined 542 pounds -- scratching, clawing and yapping about ... what?

"Wrestling," Neal said. "One time, he said, `You want to wrestle?' I said `OK, let's go!' We were just going back and forth -- it was a blast."

It's understandable.

Much of the talk in Anne Arundel wrestling circles going into the season focused on the deep and talented group of heavyweights. And with the county tournament set for today at South River, that bunch -- Neal, Bell, Severna Park's Brian Payer and Meade's Alec Eaton -- hasn't disappointed.

As for Neal, he has played the role of the new kid in town who has raised the bar even higher.

A transfer from Mount Hebron, where he went 32-8 as a freshman and was one match away from placing in the state tournament, Neal (20-1) is The Sun's top-ranked heavyweight. Bell and Payer are second and third, respectively, and Eaton, who handed Neal his only loss of the season, is sixth.

"Coming into the county, I was kind of worried. It sort of startled me a little bit. It's crazy the amount of talent the heavyweights bring," said Neal, who will play lacrosse this spring. "It puts a lot of pressure on me, so I sit back and constantly think how I have to bring my `A' game every time. I can't mess up."

Prep time that comes with Neal's `A' game includes a 24-ounce cup of coffee, Metallica blaring in his headphones and occasional words from his older brother, Brian, who was a state runner-up at Mount Hebron in 1997.

Brian and older brother Kenny have closely monitored Justin as he's gone from a big kid starting out at the age of 7 with just two moves -- a headlock and a roll -- to a polished, 16-year old sophomore, who, at 6 feet and 267 pounds, brings smarts, athleticism and quickness to the mat.

Just how far has he come?

"Last year, I put Brian on his back once. It was the first time," Justin said.

Brian's response: "He got lucky."

Luck has not been part of Neal's season.

Aside from the upset loss to Eaton, Neal outlasted Payer twice -- the second time in double overtime -- and scored an impressive 7-2 decision over Bell with a takedown and two back points in the final 10 seconds of their match.

"He's extremely athletic for his size -- very quick -- and that's rare to see from a guy that big," said Old Mill coach Jim Grim. "His technique is very good and wrestling runs in the family -- that shows."

When Neal transferred from Mount Hebron, he left a competitive program to one that as recently as four years ago only had four varsity wrestlers.

And while the Gophers didn't win a match this season, coach Corey Fowler is providing stability for the 17 wrestlers now in the practice room. And Neal is providing someone to look up to.

"With his wrestling experience, he brings a lot to the team and the guys look up to him," Fowler said. "He's fit right in. The kids trust him, like to be around him and they listen to the things he says on the mat."

Once Neal learned he would be coming to Glen Burnie, he researched the school's wrestling history and found there was a taste of success.

"In the late 1970s and early '80s, they had a few state champs," Neal said. "So they do have some history."

Included is a heavyweight state champion: Arundel assistant coach John Miller in 1981.

Neal plans to add to it.

"I want to be the first three-time heavyweight state champ," he said.

Neal has a believer in Fowler.

"He does take chances, but when he takes chances he makes sure that he has a way out. He knows his balance very well; he's a strong kid and he's fundamentally sound," Fowler said. "As long as he stays focused, he has his goals and if he maintains the path he's on, he'll do really well."

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