Last February, in the Class 3A South Region duals tournament for the second straight year, the Great Mills Hornets were denied in their quest to wrestle for a state duals championship, falling to the Northern Patriots in the semifinals.
There was a time not long ago when the Hornets may have been happy just to qualify for the regional duals. That time is not now.
“I have told my team from the get-go that we can push the limits this year and our goal is to make it to the state duals this year,” Great Mills head wrestling coach Carl Van Dunk said. “We have many returning wrestlers that were in my varsity lineup last year, and I feel that we can make a good push to finish top three for SMAC this year. The team works hard and pushes themselves to the limit. Our first hard match is going to be this Thursday, against Lackey. I’d like to say that we can take eight to 10 of our wrestlers to make it to states this year, but we have a harder road this year with new teams coming into our region.”
Great Mills is one of several SMAC programs with big goals this wrestling season, which began in earnest on Thursday night. A season ago, Leonardtown dominated the conference, going undefeated through the duals season and then claiming the conference tournament crown. Huntingtown (3A) and Lackey (1A) enjoyed their own measures of success, each reaching the state duals.
For Huntingtown, the 2017-18 3A state duals champion, it was the fifth time in the past six years that the team won regional duals. With a lineup that figures to be a little fuller this year than last, the Hurricanes have designs on making another return trip.
“Over the last two seasons losing eight or nine horses it should start to take a toll on a team,” Huntingtown head coach Jeff Fowler said, “but we’ve been fortunate enough to kind of retool and guys grow and this year we’re going to look very different. We still have a couple horses, but as different as we’ll look I really think we have an opportunity to make another run back to the state duals. If everybody gets to where they need to be ... last year as much success as we had, we still were forfeiting four matches almost every match. In a couple weeks we’ll have a full varsity lineup.”
The Hurricanes were set to open their season against a typically tough La Plata team on Thursday night, and then have a date with Leonardtown on the schedule for Tuesday as part of a tri-match that also includes Thomas Stone.
Over the past several years, the Huntingtown-Leonardtown duals have served to be the regular season’s main event in SMAC. But with matches against La Plata and Leonardtown in the first few days of the season, the Hurricanes will figure out quickly where they stand.
“Conditioning is, I think, our biggest thing,” Fowler said. “We had some kids lose some matches last year, and it does fall on us as coaches, but it’s also effort on the kids part. They have to want it. ... If we’re more conditioned, we’re going to be very, very good. That’s what we’ve been really pushing.”
At Lackey, Brandon Paulin steps into the head coaching role, replacing Justin Lansley. Lansley helped to rebuild the numbers over the past few years, with the Chargers sitting just over 30 wrestlers to start the season.
The team is coming off of consecutive 1A state duals appearances and with an experienced group returning is hoping to continue to build on that foundation. Competing in the 1A South Region the past couple of years, the Chargers are now in the more competitive 2A South this season, but Paulin is excited to see what the season ahead holds.
“Taking over for Lansley, those are big shoes to fill, but a lot of the wrestlers are back,” said Paulin, a 2014 Lackey graduate who is coming off of a couple of years as the head coach at St. Charles. “We only had three varsity spots from last year graduate out of the program. The majority of the team is still intact, so those guys who did really well in SMAC and regional duals and regionals and went to states are back. It’s a very senior-laden team. You have a whole lot of guys who have been in the room for multiple years ready to get it done. I think everyone is really excited for the start of the season.”
Lackey, which was opening its season at Great Mills against the Hornets and St. Charles on Thursday, has a strong group of seniors that Paulin said have really taken the reins in some respects.
“[The seniors] are really teaching [the underclassmen] how to work,” Paulin said. “You come into the room those seniors know what to do. They’re working hard and the younger guys take after them. They know they need to work hard in order to replicate that success this year and they’ve been doing it.
“The seniors are very much more action than talk. They come into the room, don’t say a whole lot, but they’re working until practice is over. They understand the bar they’ve set for themselves the past couple of years and their success. I think they’re continuing to work to reestablish that bar this year and see how far we can go. Nothing is given, but they’re really working their tails off.”