- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
So it really is possible for a team other than the La Plata Warriors to win the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference wrestling tournament.
Seems like it would never happen after La Plata had won the gathering the last 10 years.
But after a weekend of impressive efforts throughout their lineup, the Northern Patriots performed the title honors Saturday at the North Point-hosted SMAC tournament by amassing a first-place score of 217 points on the strength of four individual champions — double that of the next-best teams in the field — and with eight of their 11 place-finishers finishing at least third place in their respective double-elimination weight brackets.
No other team had more than six combined wrestlers finish third or better.
Coincidentally, Northern was the last SMAC team back in 2002 to claim the tournament’s bragging rights before La Plata reeled off its decade-long run.
While it was not total vindication for just missing qualification into the Class 4A-3A South Region dual tournament earlier this month, claiming the SMAC tournament over the three other regular season league powers in North Point, Huntingtown and La Plata, each having advanced to the regional duals, offered a measure of atonement for Northern.
“It’s just a great feeling, being a captain and this is my last year. The whole team did our job,” said Northern 160-pound senior Eric Hoffman, the top-ranked 4A-3A wrestler in the state at his weight. “It makes [winning the SMAC tournament] feel a lot better [knowing we ended La Plata’s reign]. It gives us confidence.”
Hoffman was joined by fellow SMAC champion teammates in seniors Brant Leadbeter (113) and Cliff Armentrout (285) and sophomore Scott Cross (220) in leading Northern to the crown. Armentrout’s 5-4 win in triple overtime over Huntingtown rival Dalonte Holland was the most dramatic of the championship finals, though Northern had already clinched team gold by that tournament-closing bout.
North Point, considered by many as the tournament favorite going in, settled for runner-up with 201 points despite boasting the most place-finishers with 12. But that could not offset only having one individual champion, three less than Northern.
“Our guys did a nice job. We placed 12,” North Point head coach Rich Pauole said. “Four champs [by Northern] is hard to beat, but we scored over 200 and took second. I thought 200 points would win it before the tourney started and it came up just a bit short. Northern won it in the championship finals.”
Huntingtown finished third with 188.5 points followed by Thomas Stone (173) and Leonardtown (152.5) in fourth and fifth.
Despite winning a ninth-straight regular season SMAC title, La Plata slipped to a sixth-place finish in the league tournament with just 148 points — definitely foreign ground for a program that has all the respect of its conference peers after winning the gathering the last 10 years.
“It’s a pretty big deal,” Leadbeter, the reigning state champion, said of winning the SMAC tournament. “It had been forever [since a team other than La Plata won it]. Definitely, it’s a confidence booster, being able to see that’s what happens when everyone shows up [on our team].”
Northern head coach Matt Smith echoed, “We knew we had an opportunity [to win the tournament], but we knew we’d have to maximize our effort to pull it out. We went in with the goal to win the tournament.
“It was a complete, total team effort. Every single one of our wrestlers contributed to the win.”
Also coming away as SMAC champions were Chopticon junior Jarrett Arnold (106 pounds), La Plata sophomore Marty Margolis (120), La Plata senior John Papanicolas (126), North Point junior Tyler Morgan (132), Patuxent junior Connor Furst (138), Chopticon senior Larry Cannon (145), Huntingtown senior Colton Rowe (152), Patuxent senior Matthew Gancayco (170), Thomas Stone senior Garrett Lineberger (182) and Lackey junior Mike Laury (195).
“The plan was to go out there and not stop attacking,” Cannon said of how he orchestrated a first-period pin of his worthy opponent in Huntingtown junior Colt Constantino in the 145 final. “I had wrestled pretty dominantly all throughout the SMAC [regular season] until I wrestled Colt [and won, 6-1]. I won every other match [in the SMAC during the regular season] by fall. He definitely wrestled a great match [against me in the regular season]. But I forced my style on him [in the SMAC tournament].”
Margolis, Papanicolas, Hoffman, Rowe and Lineberger all repeated their SMAC gold medals from a year ago.
Leadbeter, Gancayco and Lineberger are defending state champions that are looking to return atop the Maryland podium this postseason as top-ranked wrestlers in their respective classifications and weights.
Qualification to the University of Maryland-hosted state tournament March 1 and 2 takes place this coming weekend when regional tournaments unfold.
“It felt good to repeat but with the [potential for bad] weather [affecting] time changes, I feel like the [SMAC] tournament didn’t mean as much to everybody,” Lineberger said, referring to the gathering finishing a couple hours ahead of schedule. “Everything was rushed and nobody could enjoy and relish the moment.”
He added about his Stone team’s fourth-place finish despite losing reigning state runner-up Wallace Smith to a season-ending injury early in the campaign, “We were faced with many major setbacks this season but we worked through it and peaked at the right time. Like it’s painted on our wall, ‘Hard Word Pays Off’ and it truly showed this weekend.”
Changing of the guard
Leonardtown, which has been in more of a reloading phase this year after being a major SMAC contender a year ago when it finished a distant second to La Plata at last postseason’s league tournament, could relate to Stone in holding its head high after this weekend with a top-five finish.
“It was a good showing,” Leonardtown head coach Dave Cummins said of his club, which had four more place-finishers than La Plata. “I felt a lot of our kids did about what we expected. We are young and [the SMAC tournament] will bode well for us into the future.
“It’s always good to finish ahead of your rivals [like La Plata], but I’m not going to disrespect what they’ve done. What [La Plata] has done [with winning 10 straight SMAC tournaments entering this year] is phenomenal, and they’re not done achieving.”
Fittingly, Hoffman’s gritty 5-0 championship finals win over his familiar opponent in La Plata junior Anthony Cable — who Northern’s state-favorite standout expects to see in the finals of the regional and state tournaments — clinched the Patriots’ SMAC tournament glory, representing a changing of the guard from La Plata to Northern.
Entering this weekend’s 4A-3A South Region tournament, which includes North Point, Huntingtown and La Plata, Northern has suddenly emerged as the favorite and has the makings of a club that could win the state tournament.
“It was a motivator,” Hoffman recalled when he was informed that winning his finals match, as he was favored to do, would lock up Northern’s SMAC tournament title. “I felt like it was a difficult match. I came in realizing [Cable] knew just about everything I did. We’ve been wrestling together since we were little so I had to break out some knew stuff.”
Added La Plata head coach John Pankhurst, “Congrats to Northern for not only winning [four individual titles] but putting six through to the finals and for having, in my opinion, the most intensity of any team at the event. They battled for every inch. They deserved the title.
“I’m proud of the effort and focus [of our team], but we couldn’t get more points on the board. We were after [the team title] but didn’t quite get it. Our top six guys did their job and our next six battled.”