St. Mary's wrestlers tape together the school's… (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore…)
The wrestling mat was old — more than 20 years old. It had seen a lot of sweat and spit and blood and tears — just like the wrestlers who had toiled through countless matches on its worn, faded surface. The mat had been through so much, its spongy, protective softness had begun to dry up and harden, posing a safety risk last season at St. Mary's on Duke of Gloucester Street in Annapolis.
"It was the same old mat Dad had here when he coached," said St. Mary's wrestling coach Dave Hicks, whose father, Wayne, coached the Saints from 2001 to 2008 and oversaw the mat's refurbishing about 10 years ago. "It was the same mat they used in the early 1990s."
The mat seemed, at times, to reflect the struggle of the team. So when a brand-new $9,000 mat showed up for this season, a gift from the Royal Blue Club and the St. Mary's Athletic Association, which split the cost, the school's wrestlers and their coach rejoiced. The new royal-blue mat, with the insignia of the two supporting groups on opposite corners, represents how far the team has come in the past two years and what is perceived as a change of attitude at the school toward the program.
"I think it was a big deal to get that mat," said Michael Richardson, whose son Mike Jr. wrestles for the team. "It represented the transformation in the program. The program has been rebuilt, and that mat represents how far they've come. It made them feel good about themselves, and it was like a reward for all the hard work they'd put in."
St. Mary's wrestling has been through several rebuilding phases. Hicks' father, Wayne, recalls that when he came to St. Mary's in 2001, the program was in much the same shape as it was when his son took over three years ago.
"We had about seven or eight wrestlers that first year," Wayne Hicks said. "But then we built it up to as many as 20 one year and won the B Conference and the state championship in 2007, I believe."
They did that on the old mat, which had been reconditioned once. Wayne Hicks said that near the end of his tenure, the program had again taken a downward turn and noted, "There wasn't much life left in that old wrestling mat."
St. Mary's seniors Frank Lozzi, who wrestles at 152 pounds, and Connor Crowley, who competes at 215, recalled that when they joined the team two years ago there wasn't much life left in the team either. There were only about six wrestlers on the roster, and they all lost a lot. This season, they haven't missed the significance of the new piece of equipment, a visual sign of support.
"The mat was old and pretty horrid," Lozzi said. "Now we have a new mat and a full team. There was even a student section tonight."
Added Crowley after a match in December: "I've never seen a student section here before. The students, the mat, it shows the team that the school cares about our program."
Two years ago, St. Mary's, with its small cast, went 0-11. Last season, with a full roster, the Saints improved to 8-4 overall and 6-1 in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Conference, good for a tie for second place. And this season they are 3-3 overall and 3-2 in the conference.
"When I first got here three years ago, there were rumors they were going to drop the program," Dave Hicks said. "The second year, I slid inside the school and did some recruiting. The kids I got, plus the ones who came back, made us better. I think the school recognizes that interest has picked up. They've realized wrestling is here to stay.
"And I'm thinking about us moving up to the A Conference," he said. "It's the only way to get better. We're a young team this year. ... But we're winning the matches or matchups we should be winning, and I think many of my wrestlers are right on the cusp of becoming very tough wrestlers to beat. We've got a good program. We've got six or seven freshmen coming in next year from the junior leagues. We're building. And it's exciting — if you have the patience for it."
The mat came because Hicks asked for it. The purchase of the mat was brought up at a meeting of the Royal Blue Club, one of two nonprofit groups that work to raise money and help with large purchases for the athletic department. The other is the St. Mary's Athletic Association.
Together, those two organizations have served the athletic department extensively. The Royal Blue Club is a group of alumni who raise money strictly for St. Mary's athletics program, primarily through donations.
"The mat was part of a wish list," said Ed Mullen, a former club president. "We pay for all the uniforms for all the St. Mary's athletes. We've bought a pitching machine for the baseball team and equipment for the field hockey team, among other things."
Since 2002 the group has given $650,000 to the school. Included in that total is $250,000 to $300,000 in financial aid to students who maintain at least a 2.5 GPA and participate in two sports. Fifteen students are receiving aid this year.