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For the first time in 11 years, odds are the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference wrestling tournament will be won by a team other than the La Plata Warriors.
Currently boasting a prodigious run of 10 straight titles at the SMAC gathering, La Plata will have to overachieve at this weekend’s league tournament to have a chance at continuing the impressive streak.
The one thing that’s been consistent over the last 10 years, besides La Plata’s title-winning ways, has been the team’s clutch knack for coming through as the favorite.
While La Plata is still one of the four elite teams expected to vie for the SMAC tournament’s crown, the state rankings — which have always favored the Warriors, even in years they have not been a runaway champion — suggest either North Point or Huntingtown should come away with their program’s first title at the two-day event.
The top-four seedings in each weight class’ bracket also indicate La Plata will have its hands full like none other time during its run of invincibility at the tournament the last 10 years.
North Point features a SMAC-best 10 wrestlers with top-four seeds in their respective brackets, while Huntingtown has nine and Northern possesses eight, including a tournament-high five seeded in the No. 1 spot that makes it a viable contender for the title.
La Plata has six wrestlers seeded in the top four of their brackets. Two of them are seeded No. 1, the second-best such status in the tournament only behind Northern, and are expected to bring home gold in their brackets, but La Plata lacks the usual tournament-best firepower or depth that has always enabled it to prevail during the past 10 years.
“Our goal is to win the SMAC tournament,” said North Point head coach Rich Pauole. “Last year, it was our first time in the state duals and I think it was a learning experience to be able to manage practices and focus from one event to another. We did not have a great SMAC tournament last year and then had a fantastic regional tournament [the next weekend] qualifying 11 guys. I think I, as a coach, have learned from that to help me get our guys to get their focus back on track for the SMAC tournament.
“This tournament is not about ending someone’s streak. It’s about starting our own streak.”
The SMAC tournament takes place at North Point in Waldorf with the action beginning Friday at 5:30 p.m. Wrestlers return for competition Saturday with the consolation brackets teeing off at 10 a.m. The championship finals for each bracket are slated to get underway at 6 p.m. Saturday.
Huntingtown head coach Kevin Gilligan said, “Our goal this coming weekend is very simple. We want to qualify all 14 guys to the regional tournament. That is going to take some great effort on our part and some really good wrestling. Our view is always very simple when it comes to tournaments: If you wrestle well and take care of yourself individually, then the team score will take care of itself.”
La Plata comes into the SMAC tournament after losing to North Point, 33-29, in the Class 4A-3A South Region duals final. That came after outlasting Huntingtown, 42-36, in the regional duals semifinals to avenge a regular season loss to the Hurricanes.
“Looking at the SMAC tournament, I don’t know that I am as much focused on the team winning the title as I am focused on each individual performing to their potential,” La Plata head coach John Pankhurst said. “Tournaments are won by putting guys into the finals and having guys stay alive and come back through the consolation brackets. You need every guy to battle for every advancement and every bonus point because they add up in the end. I think it’s pretty evident that there are several teams that are fully capable of putting three to five guys into the SMAC finals. If that takes place the team among them that can have a couple guys battle back to [the third-place consolation final] or stay alive and get to [the fifth-place consolation final] will have the advantage.”
Last year’s SMAC tournament was expected to be a tight affair before La Plata ended up prevailing in relatively convincing fashion by 63 points over second-place Leonardtown.
It was the race for second place a year ago that was much more riveting as three teams were separated by four points with Leonardtown (182), North Point (180) and North Point (178).
It’s very unlikely for this weekend’s tournament to unfold with any of the SMAC’s four marquee teams comfortably claiming the team title, as La Plata did a year ago.
“I do think the tournament is wide open,” Northern head coach Matt Smith said. “It will probably come down to bonus points and wrestle-backs [in the consolation brackets]. I think we are one of several schools that feel pretty good about their chances this weekend. If I have 14 guys give their best effort that I know we are capable of, I will be happy regardless of the final team score.”
Northern just missed qualification into the four-team regional duals, that also included Parkdale of Prince George’s County, despite defeating Huntingtown in the regular season while only losing to La Plata by a point and North Point by four points.
“Not making the [regional] duals was disappointing, but [it provided] an opportunity to reflect and refocus on our individual and team goals,” Smith added. “We are hoping that we made the most of our time in the practice room to get healthy and fix the things we need for the next couple of weeks.”
Gilligan echoed, “SMAC is very balanced. How teams wrestle through the wrestle-backs could very well determine the champion. I would venture to say that this will be a close race at the top with four or five teams vying for the title.”
Pankhurst added, “Whether we have or don’t have momentum going into the SMAC tournament is hard to say. We lost our last match [in regional duals], so did Huntingtown and so did North Point [in the state duals]. Northern was on the cusp of getting in [to regional duals] and building steam at the end [of the regular season] and then didn’t get into the duals so that was a frustration of sorts for them, I’m sure. That is not to discount the rest of the conference, but do any of us have momentum right now?
“Or, are we all irritated and restless and in need of a chance to compete to attempt to get the negative thoughts and results out of our system? I think we are about to have a pretty chippy, competitive event where everyone is trying to make up for something that feels lost or missing.”