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Llopez, country’s third-ranked 160-pounder, transfers from SMAC’s La Plata to WCAC’s St. Mary’s Ryken

By DALLAS COGLE

Staff writer

Seeing Josh Llopez have his arm raised in victory is anything but a rarity as the 160-pound junior is one of the nation’s best high school wrestlers, ranked third in the country according to flowrestling.org.

Seeing Llopez continue constructing his mighty resume in a St. Mary’s Ryken Knights uniform — now that will take some getting used to.

After starring the last two years for the La Plata Warriors’ powerhouse program with a perfect record against Maryland competition that included back-to-back Class 4A-3A state crowns as a 152-pound phenom in his freshman and sophomore years, Llopez decided to take his immense talents south in a transfer that he strongly hinted about toward the end of last wrestling season.

“I decided towards the end of my wrestling season last year, around the SMAC tournament,” Llopez said about when he realized Ryken would be where he would finish the final two years of his high school career. “I was looking to get a good education and of course go to a good wrestling program. [Being able to wrestle in many more elite tournaments at prep school] played into [my decision to leave La Plata]. That definitely influenced [my decision] a lot because wrestling is pretty much my life along with God and my family.”

Llopez is the reigning Junior Nationals freestyle champion at 152 after winning the prestigious Fargo gathering in North Dakota in July.

“To have national competitions in [my high school] season [with Ryken], I get the opportunity to compete with these [nationally ranked] guys and that’s pretty exciting,” he said.

Wrestling in such events that bring in the top wrestlers in the country like the Walsh Iron Man tournament in Ohio this weekend that Llopez will be competing in along with top-ranked Bo Jordan of Ohio and second-ranked Isaiah Martinez of California in his weight class, both seniors — provides a stage that was not possible while Llopez was at La Plata.

“Now, we’re trying to get him to potentially a No. 1 ranking in the country,” Ryken head coach Matt Myers said. “You’re not going to get that No. 1 ranking coming out of a public school in Maryland. You will get it out of a private school because of the fact that you’re going to the Beast of the East [tournament in Delaware], going to Iron Man. We put together a schedule that will set [our wrestlers] to that No. 1 ranking. Because we’re in a private school system, we’re able to do that.”

He added, “In a public school setting, sometimes they won’t even let you leave the state to compete. Other things come into play where you can’t wrestle on Sundays. Well, the No. 2- or 3-ranked tournament in the entire country is at the University of Delaware and they wrestle on a Sunday. Everybody in the state of Maryland [public schools] cannot go to that tournament because they wrestle on a Sunday. I’m a private school. I don’t have any of those limitations.”

The lack of such limitations schedule-wise is enabling Llopez to possibly jump from No. 3 to the top ranking in the country this week should he shine over Jordan and Martinez.

“I do get anxious, I wouldn’t say nervous,” Llopez added about facing such big-time competition. “I definitely go into each match confident when I step into the circle. I go into each match like I’m the best wrestler. At the end of the day, they put on their shoes just like I do.”

Llopez’s departure from La Plata was south as in further down geographically in Southern Maryland from La Plata to the prep school world of Ryken in the elite Washington Catholic Athletic Conference.

“When Josh came to us, we weren’t out looking for him,” La Plata head coach John Pankhurst said. “That was a family decision they made. He chose to come here and they were here for two years. We had a lot of success while he was here. He had a lot of success while he was here. They made a decision as a family to change direction and I wish him the best.

“I wish him as much success as he can get, and I hope he finds the things he’s looking for. Hopefully, he’s able to ascend to the next level that he wants to ascend to.”

Ryken has already made the quantum leap to juggernaut status in the WCAC early on this season with the arrivals Llopez and sophomore standout Steven Simpson (113), a sophomore transfer from DeMatha who is a Charles County resident.

Tuesday, Ryken defeated fellow WCAC elite contender DeMatha in thrilling 40-37 fashion in what was described as the “best thing in my coaching career,” by Myers, who was the helm of his alma mater of McDonough for three years before now being in his second season with Ryken, ranked 25th in the state among public and private schools.

Ryken notched a clutch pin at heavyweight in the final bout to beat DeMatha.

Llopez and Simpson both recorded pins in Ryken’s first ever win over 15th-ranked DeMatha, the WCAC champion in 25 of the last 27 seasons.

“The goal was when me and [assistant coach Jason] Keissling took over [at Ryken], we wanted to win the conference in three years,” Myers said. “Last year was the first year that Ryken had a .500 season in [the WCAC] in maybe 10 years. We came in right away and kind of changed the whole persona of what we were doing there. Now we’re looking at, why can’t we change a 4-4 [WCAC] record into an 8-0 record? We’ve told the kids already, the game plan to win [the WCAC] in three years has changed. We want to do it this year with the tools in place, with the kids that have come in. The fact that I’ve only lost one kid out of my starting lineup from last year makes us so much stronger this year as well.

“The only thing that stands in our way is Good Counsel [ranked third in the state]. They have a lot more depth than we do, but this year we’re looking to win the conference, and not only win but in convincing fashion.”

What could’ve been at La Plata

Myers was a two-time state champion at McDonough while winning a rare four Southern Maryland Athletic Conference state titles, but even he as a standout high school talent pales in comparison to what Llopez is in the process of accomplishing: becoming a four-time state champion — two of them will have to come via the prep school route with his transfer to Ryken — barring injury or major upset.

Llopez would have most likely solidified himself as arguably the best public school wrestler ever in the state had he remained at La Plata, on track to join just five others throughout Maryland’s public school history as four-time state champions. This year could have seen him become the most celebrated SMAC wrestler in history as nobody from the league has ever won more than two state titles.

“I was supposed to go to private school instead La Plata [my first two years,] but we moved,” said Llopez, whose father’s job brought the family to Southern Maryland from the Baltimore area his eighth-grade year. He would have attended Archbishop Curley, where his father was a football coach, had the family remained in Baltimore. “When I decided to go to prep school [last year at La Plata], it was always Ryken the whole way. DeMatha did talk to my dad a little bit, but Ryken was where I was going.”

La Plata’s alluring resume as a program, winning six duals and tournament titles in six years through the 2011-12 campaign when the Warriors swept both competitive fields, is what kept Llopez from going the prep school route beginning with his freshman year.

“Certainly unforgettable,” Llopez said of his experience at La Plata. “The team we had my freshman year was phenomenal. We could compete with any school. If it was up to me [and I could wrestle the schedule I’m getting at Ryken], I would still be at La Plata with my guys, my family. I’ll remember that experience forever.”

Myers added, “Josh just got to the point where there’s nothing more for him to prove at public school. He’s won SMAC twice already, he’s won the regions twice already, he won states twice already. He’s won a national championship on the freestyle side during the summer wrestling.”

Pankhurst said, “It’s rare thing to get four public [school state] titles. But at the same time, I think a large part of the reason why he went [to Ryken] was to broaden his ability to compete. I understand a lot of the things that went into [making the decision to transfer to Ryken].”

Continuing to be the state’s top-ranked wrestler in his weight class regardless of his uniform, Llopez blasted off his Ryken career Saturday with a 6-4 overtime comeback victory against another dynamic prep school talent in sophomore Myles Martin of McDonogh School, located in Owings Mills. The two forces met in the final of the prestigious Ray Oliver Tournament, hosted by McDonogh.

Martin is ranked second in the state and ninth nationally by flowrestling.org. He was in line to tally a big victory over Llopez with a 4-2 lead in the second period until the new Ryken stalwart tallied an escape near the end of the second a tying escape in the third, then scored a triumphant takedown in overtime to trigger a raucous eruption from the crowd.

“Being a four-time state champion [at the public school level] doesn’t compare to being a national champion by wrestling at Beast of the East and Ironman [tournaments],” Llopez said.

dcogle@somdnews.com