They can't get mats out of their systems

UMBC: Shrugging off hardships, a club team does its part to keep the sport alive on campus.

College Wrestling

March 09, 2004|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

At 7 a.m., the chill is biting. Even a car muffler sounds louder against the relative silence of I-95 near UMBC's campus in Catonsville as the last of roughly a dozen wrestlers walk from a parking lot into the Retriever Activity Center.

They hope to lend a hand to a sport perceived to be dying.

Inside, past a line of exercise bikes, a stroll takes a visitor into a general-purpose fitness room. But rather than the mirrors reflecting dance or yoga classes, it's the pursuit of single-leg takedowns that dominates the room every Tuesday and Thursday morning.

A club team has grown to a membership of more than 20 wrestlers over the past five months, under the tutelage of school athletic director Charles Brown.

Ranked 16th among club teams, it will send 10 members to compete for titles in the National Collegiate Wrestling Association tournament that will begin Friday in Dallas.

Brown, a former college wrestling coach, has been bitten anew by the bug at the age of 58 after being long content to keep the sport in his past.

"It's given me a new enthusiasm for the job, and it doesn't interfere with my job," said Brown, who also oversees all the club programs. "I'm here at 6:30 in the morning, and by 8:30, I'm in my office."

UMBC's team is one of 101 programs in the NCWA, an organization formed in 1997 to preserve teams at universities that cut the sport from their athletic programs. It keeps rankings and holds its own championships.

It doesn't matter that the quality could be equated to Division III, said NCWA executive director Jim Giunta.

With the number of teams reduced 65 percent from 1972, the point is to keep the sport active to outlast what he sees as its obstacle -- current interpretations of gender-equity law-- and to eventually return wrestling to varsity status.

But, Giunta said, "I realize that this is the way it's going, and it's not just for wrestling." He noted the elimination of other men's sports over the past decade as colleges attempt to increase the slots for women athletes in response to Title IX.

Many of the wrestlers in Catonsville, particularly team founders Andy Gotsch and Mike Hornzell, also hope UMBC can field a team on a higher level, but they realize the cost dampens the possibility of reviving a varsity-grade squad that has been dormant since the early 1970s.

Perfect fit for some

Moreover, the caliber of an NCAA-sanctioned team might be too high for many of those who congregate in the mirror-walled room.

Instead, the club is for such wrestlers as Ibrahim Oweis, a sophomore from Ellicott City who brings to mind the hyperactive character Max Fisher in the movie Rushmore.

In addition to attending classes, Oweis assists his father's veterinary practice, writes for the school's newspaper and has started two campus groups -- one for a capella singers, the other for Muslim students.

As for the club team, the former Mount Hebron wrestler joined as a heavyweight for the purpose of getting in shape.

"I see a lot of guys who go into the sport and they start a little pudgy and come out ripped," Oweis said. "I'm a part of several groups and I wouldn't be able to do that if it was something hyper-competitive."

Informality surrounds the intensity of the workouts. On the mat, Oweis and another heavyweight vie for a chance to compete in a meet in Richmond with Virginia Commonwealth and Virginia Tech, with Brown serving as a referee while wearing a suit. Just a few feet away from the holds and thumps, the rest of the team pairs off to work on technique.

Scarcely off the mats is a makeshift locker room, with jeans and sweaters lying on the floor and a pressed shirt and pants hanging from a support meant for a speed bag.

Compared to the 20 hours of participation allowed by NCAA teams, the three hours of organized practice the team goes through each week is lean, a detail noticed by former Catonsville star Josh Brown. "I definitely need to get my conditioning up," he said, "but it's up to you to get in shape on your own."

Initiative played a crucial role in this, the most successful but not the first venture into wrestling on campus. Shortly after the school year started, Gotsch, a freshman from Mount Hebron, met Hornzell, a junior from Howard, who was used to seeing eager efforts in September bite the dust by November.

Rising and shining

But Gotsch did much of the paperwork, and anytime they saw someone with a wrestling T-shirt, one of them would blurt, "Hey, sign up." That resulted in 15 names on the initial list and 12 at the first practice.

The tough part was the practice time offered by the school's activity center. The marriage of college students and 7 a.m. is usually one headed for divorce and, for a while, this one was on its way there, too. Only four or five guys were showing up in October.

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