As recently as 20 years ago, wrestling was “kind of like the Wild Wild West” when it came to athletes making their desired weight classes, Quince Orchard coach Rob Wolf said.
“(When I was in high school), people used to wear rubber suits, we’d roll them up in the mat to make them sweat more,” Wolf said. “We’d go into saunas. Guys would lose a crazy amount of weight in a short period of time. Unfortunately (when you do that), you also lose your strength.”
The sport’s culture has changed drastically in the 10 to 15 years since the NCAA and National Federation of State High School Associations cracked down on safety regulations that ensure athletes meet weight in a safe and healthy manner. Yet, it is still hard for high school wrestlers to shake the stigma that has surrounded the sport for years, Quince Orchard sophomore Alejandro Lopez said.
“I think some people are ignorant about it because they don’t really know about the sport,” said Lopez, who was the 126-pound champion at Magruder’s invitational meet Dec. 12. “When people think when you wrestle you starve yourself, it’s a huge misconception. It’s all about safety now. People doing crazy stuff are not going to be able to go out and wrestle well. You have to be safe about it. It’s really good how we evolved from the real crazy ways it was done before to being safe and not harming ourselves.”
In order to participate all MCPS athletes are required to be certified by a physician for a specific wright class. This was done through the county at one central location on two dates at the start of the season. Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association regulations state that all wrestlers have their minimum weight class certified prior to their first match, per the MCPS website’s wrestling page. Maryland also requires a body fat analysis as part of this process; wrestlers can only drop down to seven percent body fat (12 percent for girls) while maintaining a proper level of hydration, per the website. And coaches are given a schedule to determine the rate at which weight can be dropped, Wolf said.
“We live in a very different society than it was; today’s society is very safety conscious,” Northwest coach Joe Vukovich said. “There is more structure, it’s more rigid. And yes, you’re stopping things that are unhealthy. It’s just a smarter way to do things. I embrace the safety and the structure. It also allows for a long-term plan. You’re certified at the beginning of the season and you know what you can be at the end of the season if you choose to do that. Before kids were losing weight however they wanted to and it wasn’t safe and it wasn’t organized. Now there are short-term goals and long-term goals and season plans.”
But Vukovich said the minority sport’s bad rap will likely never disappear completely because it is the only interscholastic high school sport that involves weight and official weigh-ins. That, of course, directly correlates with perhaps the sport’s best quality: Athletes compete against opponents their own size.
“In wrestling, there’s an opportunity for everyone,” Wolf said. “When do you have in an athletic event where you compete against someone exactly your size? You take someone who’s 106 pounds and you put them on a football field or a basketball court, they have no chance.”
There are two main reasons for athletes to drop weight, Wolf said. If they are at the lower end of a higher weight class, they’d likely be more successful if on the heavier side of a lighter weight division. Sometimes, Wolf added, it’s merely about filling a spot in a lineup.
In fact, achieving a balanced lineup with strength across all 14 spots, is key to team success in general and what Quince Orchard and Northwest are working to build as they head into the hearts of their respective seasons. Each individual match is as important as the next, no matter the division; a team could have the five best athletes in the county but even if they win every single match, the team could lose all of its dual meets.
While Wolf and Vukovich agreed three-time defending Class 4A/3A dual-meet state champion Damascus is the team to beat again this winter, the county’s no. 2 slot appears to be up for grabs. And Quince Orchard (3-0), which finished fourth in an 18-team field at Magruder over the weekend, is in major contention for that position and to qualify for states, which it just missed out on doing a year ago. The Cougars, who were 17-4 last winter, graduated about 50 percent of their starting lineup. But Wolf said an influx of talented underclassmen has helped fill in some holes in the lightweight divisions.
Alejandro Lopez and his older brother Antonio (120 pounds), whom he said inspires him, senior Eisley Kim (195 pounds), and classmate Zeph Titus (285 pounds) are among the Cougars’ top guys, Wolf said. The elder Lopez and Titus are currently out with injury but the former is expected back within the next week and the latter in January. Quince Orchard will face its first big test against Whitman Monday.
“I’m expecting big things from us,” the younger Lopez said. “We’re just starting the season and we have few little holes to fill right now but we’ll get those fixed up quickly.”
While Northwest (13-3 in 2014-15) has perennially been in the upper echelon of county wrestling, the Jaguars are younger this year than the past 10 to 15 years, Vukovich said. During that time Northwest has barely had a freshman starter, he added, and this year the Jaguars have three, as well as four sophomores. Vukovich said he expects growing pains and said the team’s success will hinge on his young talent’s ability to “mature in a competitive sense.”