Three-time state wrestling champion Josh Asper of Hereford isn't about to take any chances these days.
The Bulls' 171-pound senior simply knows better.
That's why, despite already being one of the finest-conditioned wrestlers in the state, Asper is constantly putting in an extra mile or two during his already extensive runs. That's why he's also making sure not to slack off the last half-hour of practice on a given Friday. And that's why he makes sure to get in the wrestling room on some Sundays, too.
At next month's state tournament - set for March 7-8 at Cole Field House in College Park - Asper has an opportunity to join select company. Should he reach the top of the podium in the Class 4A-3A ranks, he would join 1992 Aberdeen graduate Matt Slutzky and 1997 Owings Mills graduate Steve Kessler as Maryland's only four-time public school state champions.
"I can't get nervous about it. I have to just keep on doing what I've been doing the last few years and not change much except pushing myself harder," said the University of Maryland-bound Asper, who is 26-0 and has won 76 consecutive matches. "I think I'm on the right track. I've been working even harder than past years, so I don't think there's any reason why things should come out any differently."
Things were quite different for Asper when he took up the sport in fifth grade, however. He started out on his junior league's B team, finding mixed success, and didn't win a match when he was called up to the A team.
Undeterred, he spent countless hours dedicating himself to becoming a champion. Now that he is one, he never forgets what it took to get here.
The three-time first-team All-Metro selection said his first state title as a freshman provided the added incentive to push himself that much harder.
Exceeding first-year expectations by going 35-5 at 135, Asper closely examined the bracket and thought a top-three finish would be ideal, and simply placing would be a considerable accomplishment.
He went up against a wrestler who would go on to win a state title the next year, then a highly touted champion from the East region before taking on the top-ranked 135-pound wrestler in Class 2A-1A.
When Asper recorded three wins - the last a stunning 13-4 major decision over previously undefeated Calvert senior Jeffers Frazier - the tournament's most-asked question quickly became: "Who was the freshman from Hereford?"
After Asper's 6-2 decision over Walkersville senior Chad Cotterman, a two-time finalist, in the final, everybody knew.
"It was impressive and improbable," Hereford coach Ron Causey said. "It was really just kind of amazing. He won four matches and three in a row against guys with one loss or no losses."
Asper said that win was his best moment on the mat, but a tough loss two weeks earlier might have been the most important.
Up against Kenwood's top-seeded Eric Robinson in the Baltimore County tournament semifinals, Asper got the senior in a headlock and earned three back points for a quick 5-0 lead, but he ran out of steam in the third period and fell, 15-10.
"After that tournament, the question was: `What can you do to put yourself in a position that you're better than them?' And the answer was: `Well, you have control over your conditioning,' " Causey said. "From the county tournament to the state tournament - those two weeks - he was running every day and got in significantly better shape."
Asper's ability to outwork opponents and dictate matches with constant pressure are two of his biggest attributes. Quiet confidence is another, something that has been with him since his early years on the mat.
Causey, who also coached Asper in the junior leagues, saw an athletic, tough-nosed kid. And despite the first-year struggles, Asper never had his head down. In his second junior league season, he qualified for the state tournament as the 16th seed, matching up against the top seed.
A few words from his father, Jeff, helped Asper overcome the seemingly overwhelming task.
"Josh came to me and said, `I got to wrestle the No. 1 kid.' I said, `Yep, and you have all the advantages in the world. That kid doesn't know you. All he knows is you are the 16th seed and he's not worried about you. All you have to do is go out there and take him down because he won't be ready for that.' Sure enough, Josh went out there and beat him, 9-6," Jeff Asper said.
South Carroll 171-pound senior Tyler Mullen has had a firsthand look at Asper's growing confidence. Mullen won more than his share when the two locked up in the junior leagues and took the first match between the two in high school, but he has dropped the past two meetings.
"He's kind of like the Tom Brady of wrestling in that no matter the situation, he'll find a way to win a match, and that's what you got to be able to do when you're out there," said Mullen, who competes in Class 2A-1A. "Once he started winning and got on the streak he's on right now, I just think he's pretty much unstoppable."
After going 36-2 in the 145-pound class during his sophomore season to capture his second state title, Asper went 39-0 at 160 last year to become Hereford's first three-time state champion.
Asper has effectively stayed on course through another undefeated season - including a title at the prestigious Mount Mat Madness tournament two weekends ago.
As for the prospects of becoming a four-time state champion, Asper, not surprisingly, has everything in proper perspective.
"There's a little bit of pressure," he said. "I just say that I'm going to do the best I can, and that's all I can do."