There’s a short video on YouTube, 26 seconds in fact, that’s grainy and reeks of the early 2000s.
Produced by the Washington Post, the video depicts a jubilant Paint Branch Panthers wrestling squad celebrating with the 4A/3A state championship trophy, as a dramatic voiceover segues into a brief interview with a youthful Rick Smith.
Smith, who started coaching at the school in 1993, briefly lists his team’s accolades: 17-0 record, won every tournament they were in, No. 1 in the Maryland State Wrestling Association and No. 1 in the Post.
After winning that state championship in 2001, however, the Panthers haven’t won another.
Now, with a new pristine high school building that opened earlier this year standing as a symbol of change and rebirth, Smith said he and his team are hopeful that soon they’ll be able to recreate the glory days and bring a third state title to Paint Branch sooner than later.
“It’s going to be interesting to see,” Smith said. “Usually, it’s not one of those sports where all of a sudden you just become good overnight. You’ve got some kids who you’ve developed and you’ve put them together.”
With a new building, obviously, comes a new athletic facility. And within the spacious 340,000 square foot campus riddled with stunning limestone, the designers managed to squeeze a few extra feet into the wrestling room.
“We’re excited. I used to worry about guys running into each other because our old room was so small. This room is a good size,” Smith said.
Though practices began only last week, the players and coaches seem very pleased with the burgundy and gold-lined facilities. Smith said the old room was roughly 30 feet by 30 feet. The new space is closer to 50 by 50.
“I’m excited [about the room],” sophomore Ryan Van Meers said. “It’s big. Really, really big. Huge.”
On the mat, senior Malik Kelly (160) returns to lead a youthful squad that Van Meers (113) should also bolster. Van Meers’ older brother Taylor was the only member of the Panthers to win a match at the 4A/3A state tournament last season at Cole Field House. KC Hill (152) and Garrett Smith (182) also should provide a significant boost for a team that Smith said has “some lightweight, middleweight and upper weight kids who have some potential but need to step it up if they want to wrestle.”
Smith also brought in a new assistant, former Paint Branch standout Danny Lethbridge, who earned all-conference honors for Messiah College in Pennsylvania last year.
Though the building alone might not translate into immediate success for Paint Branch, which won Montgomery County’s first state wrestling title in 1978, Smith is hopeful that the combination of the new facilities with a youthful roster will lead to a revival of the glory days.
“Paint Branch has had a lot of success,” Smith said. “We’ve held our own. I’ve got to train these kids up and hopefully we will do well. If we get kids to step up, I hope we can be fairly competitive.”
Added Van Meers: “It’s like a brand new start. We’re hoping to have a lot of success this year and create a lot of new traditions.”