COLLEGE PARK -- Hudson Taylor is focused on three-card monte. The Maryland student sits shirtless beside the red mat in the Comcast Center wrestling room after practice, deftly arranging and rearranging cards.
The card game is a natural for the theatrical Taylor, an amateur magician who entertains his teammates on road trips.
But he reserves his best performances for the mat. On March 8, the redshirt sophomore won at 197 pounds at Comcast Center to clinch Maryland's first Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 35 years.
It was the latest achievement for an ambitious program with an uneven history -- it wasn't fully funded until several years ago -- that crept back into the national rankings this season for the first time since 1993.
The team hopes to continue its upward climb at the NCAA championships beginning tomorrow in St. Louis. Taylor and five teammates qualified -- the biggest group Maryland has sent since 1990.
"I'm glad they're running the program like they should, finally," said former Maryland coach John McHugh, who can appreciate how far the Terrapins have come.
McHugh coached the Terrapins from 1979 until his retirement in 2003, a period when the program was hit by severe cutbacks.
Like other Maryland sports, wrestling suffered after the cocaine-induced death of basketball star Len Bias in 1986. By the end of that year, athletic director Dick Dull, basketball coach Lefty Driesell and football coach Bobby Ross had left a university that was seeking renewed emphasis on academics in athletic programs.
"When Bias died, things [in wrestling] had been rolling pretty good," McHugh said. "But a lot of the Terrapin Club was upset when Lefty got fired and didn't donate money, and the athletic department really plunged financially. Wrestling went from 10 scholarships to five scholarships. We struggled, but we still hung in there."
McHugh recalls getting a letter from an interested recruit during that time and having to tell him Maryland had no available scholarships. "He went to Penn State and became a national champion," said McHugh, who taught a full load of physical education classes in addition to his coaching.
Many universities dropped varsity wrestling in the 1970s and 1980s, saying they couldn't afford it and still meet mandates to fund women's sports. Maryland and other schools' wrestling programs have been aided by contributions from alumni and friends.
Said McHugh of his program's survival: "I think because I was older than the rest of them, they sort of left me alone."
Maryland wrestling supporter Steve Hayleck credits McHugh with keeping the program afloat with only half of the scholarships of many rival colleges. The coach "held the program together when so many others were being eliminated," said Hayleck, who was on the team, graduating in 1981.
The program was provided the maximum allotment of 9.9 scholarships beginning in 2005-06 after a fund-raising campaign on behalf of wrestling and other sports.
Fifth-year coach Pat Santoro, who recently signed a contract extension to keep him in College Park through the 2013 season, said his wrestlers "really want to be a part of building something. They were like, `We haven't won this [the ACC] in 35 years?'"
Santoro's first big recruit, junior Josh Haines from Walnutport, Pa., has been ranked as high as No. 17 in the nation at 184 pounds.
Haines' arrival helped attract Taylor, from Pennington, N.J. Taylor, whose self-designed major includes elements of art, theater, philosophy and American history, said he enjoys participating in marquee events such as the NCAAs. The bigger the stage, the better.
"When I get out there in large venues, I feel like I'm a better wrestler," said Taylor, whose performance in the NCAAs will dictate whether he makes All-American. "I feel the need to rise to the occasion."