Friendly rivals seek excellence

Wrestling: Annapolis co-captains and neighbors Ben Graham and Andrew Smith continue to push one another on the mat in pursuit of a state title.

High Schools

December 19, 2003|By Glenn P. Graham | Glenn P. Graham,SUN STAFF

Annapolis senior co-captains Ben Graham and Andrew Smith are, for the most part, different. That is, except for a couple of things: wrestling and winning.

Graham is reserved and takes a straight-ahead, blue-collar manner to the mat that persistently wears on an opponent for six minutes.

Smith is more brash, and that, too, shows up when Smith brings out his free-flowing and fancy moves.

So what would they do without each other?

"Good question," said Annapolis coach Tom Sfakiyanudis. "I think the biggest asset they have may be each other."

Graham and Smith have grown up on the same street, a few houses apart, and their mutual interest in wrestling dates to fifth grade, when Graham joined the Navy junior league program, a year after Smith.

Through the junior program and three previous years of varsity competition at Annapolis, the two returning Anne Arundel County champions have been nearly side by side in weight classes - Graham now 3-0 at 135 and Smith posting the same record at 140.

With few exceptions, their biggest tests come on a daily basis in the practice room.

"The better he is, the better I become," said Smith, who was 31-2 last season and placed fifth in Maryland's high school championship meet. "We feed off each other and help each other a lot. It can get pretty intense, but we know we're just pushing each other to get better."

Their objective this season is to be the best. To make it happen, Graham will count on his muscle and endurance. Smith is more technical and calculated, staying a move ahead of opponents and always primed to jump at a mistake.

"We both want to be undefeated state champions, and we know this is our last chance," said Graham, a two-time state runner-up who has signed on to wrestle next winter for Davidson College in North Carolina. "But you can't take anything for granted because there's no guarantees."

Both are banking on their experience and some tough lessons learned over their first three years at Annapolis.

As sophomores, while Graham made his first state final appearance, Smith was frustrated by Wilde Lake senior Matt Ennis, a returning state champ, in the quarterfinals. Trailing, Smith head-butted his opponent and was disqualified, ending his season and losing all the team points he had earned to hinder the Panthers' chance at a state crown.

"That was a big turning point for him," said Sfakiyanudis. "He knew he let his team down, which was a hard thing for him to take. The transformation was huge from that year to the following year. He's grown into a great captain and leader."

Last year, Graham again fell one match short of a state title, dropping an 11-4 decision to Dulaney's Andrew Schlaffer for his first loss of the season.

"Last season, I think I was holding back a little too much," said Graham, who finished with a 32-1 mark and is now 93-13 in his three-plus seasons. "I can't overlook anybody, but I also have to go in more confident. I think I can give people too much credit sometimes."

Of all the years the two have squared off, they recollect only one occasion when it was for keeps. It came in the sixth grade at a holiday tournament at Chesapeake High.

Graham won, 1-0, and competition between them always has been that evenly matched.

"Lately, he's been winning a few more than I have, but it's always been pretty even," said Graham, who is undecided on a college but plans to continue wrestling. "Some days, I'll be better, and other days he will. It usually comes down to just who has the more energy on that day."

With mostly a raw group of underclassmen around them, Graham and Smith have taken their captain roles to a higher level, Sfakiyanudis calling them more like "assistant coaches."

"They bring so much skill that they're helping build up the program," said 130-pounder Jared Stricklin, the only other senior returnee with varsity experience. "You don't want to wrestle them. Ben, he'll just grind you down - I've seen it every match. And with Andrew, it's more like a finesse match. It looks like he has everything planned out in his head first."

Last season, the Annapolis pair went all the way to states with perfect records, and both appear to have clear paths in a bid to make it happen again.

"They draw attention with what they do on the mat and not outside it. To me, that's the mark of true champions," said Old Mill coach Jim Grim.

"The first time I remember recognizing them, I somehow thought they were seniors, but they were only sophomores. Finally, I can definitely say I don't have to worry about seeing them next year. That's a bonus."

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