Going to the Mat
Terps Seek To Regain Stranglehold On Sport In Which They Once Were Major Players
Athletically, the University of Maryland is quite typical.
By Joe Platania
It is a large, Division I school situated near well-populated urban areas that funnel their share of elite athletes toward the campus. It is a member of a competitive, high-level, high-profile conference, producing national contenders in all sports.
The Terrapins have tasted ultimate success in many varied endeavors, winning NCAA championships in many different sports: from football to lacrosse, from field hockey to basketball to soccer, and so on.
But, just as Winston Churchill lectured all about "blood, toil, tears and sweat," there's one Maryland squad that has had to employ plenty of strength, speed, character and sweat to find its own way into the spotlight.
It is the most primal of sports where the body is asked, at one and the same time, to perform its most basic movements while occasionally defying physics.
It is a team sport that relies on individual effort, a curious paradox where a participant is cheered on heartily but is not allowed to receive assistance.
It is a plural effort whose results rely on singular strength.
It is wrestling.
FEAST, FAMINE & BACK AGAIN
In the Comcast Center's ground-floor corridor, each sport in which Maryland participates has its history and accomplishments listed on a specially-prepared wall mount.
Because of the space between doorways, elevators and the like, many of the mounts are in groups of two or three. The Terps' wrestling resume is separate, alone in its own space.
That's not necessarily a bad thing; wrestling is the ultimate solo exercise; its very essence is the one-on-one matchup. Terps assistant coach James Yonushonis, a former All-American at Penn State, was trying to get that point across to a group of youngsters at a recent beginners' camp.
"Wrestling's a tough sport," Yonushonis told them. "It's different than any other sport. Lots of kids your age want to play football, baseball, basketball, sports like that. But you don't 'play' wrestling. You just wrestle. It's a lot harder."
The random nature of college athletics in general, and wrestling in particular, made it hard on Maryland for quite a while. By dint of hard work and perseverance, times are good again.
The Terps are coming off two of their most successful seasons, finishing 21st and then 10th at the most recent NCAA tournaments. In fact, the 10th-place showing at the 2009 nationals in St. Louis was the second-best finish the Terps had ever posted, surpassed only by their ninth-place performance in 1965.
That team was part of an incredible run that saw coach Sully Krouse's teams win the first 20 championships in the new Atlantic Coast Conference from 1954 to 1973, not to mention the last two titles in the old Southern Conference before the ACC was formed.
Robert Kopinsky, a standout on the 1965 team, and Gobel Kline (1969) have won Maryland's only two individual championships to date. Earlier, Ernest Fischer (1954) was a Terps' standout and found his way onto the U.S. Olympic team for the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne, Australia.
After the 1973 season, Maryland found its shoulders pinned for a long time. Despite a scattered number of runner-up finishes in the ACC -- and a pair of conference Coach of the Year honors for John McHugh -- Maryland didn't win the conference again for 35 years, a period of time that saw many other sports assert themselves in the national spotlight.
What the wrestling team needed was the same double-barreled infusion of new facilities and attitude many of Maryland's teams had previously received. Ralph Friedgen, Sasho Cirovski and Brenda Frese charismatically re-energized the football, men's soccer and women's basketball programs, respectively. Ludwig Field and the Comcast Center had greatly assisted the field hockey and hoop squads.
The Terps' wrestling room needed a makeover. What it got were plenty of motivating slogans, a bunch of past champions' photos . . . and Kerry McCoy.
OLYMPIAN COACH, HERCULEAN TASK
McCoy is a single-minded man who seemed to be born for this sport. A firm handshake, a straight-on stare into a questioner's eyes and a firm commitment to winning are hallmarks of this two-time national champion, three-time All-American (Penn State), Pan Am Games gold medalist and two-time Olympian. He finished fifth at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney and seventh at the 2004 event in Athens.
McCoy, who succeeded Lehigh legend Pat Santoro, posted a 29-19 dual-meet record in three years at Stanford University, a mark that got him noticed in the coaching community.
It was McCoy, who had plenty of opportunities to go elsewhere, who noticed how Maryland was pulling itself out of the doldrums.
"I don't know what brought the program down," McCoy said. "Part of it could have been because the level of commitment of some other schools in (the ACC) was bumped up, and it became higher than Maryland's.
"After that, what really brought it back was when five to seven years ago, the administration stepped up and said we're going to fully fund this program, and then the donors raised the money."
The results are evident in a wrestling room that used to feature misshapen circles on the mats and was barren of any accessories. Now it features videotape equipment, two flat-screen televisions, photos of all of Maryland's ACC and national champions, and banners emblazoned with motivating slogans, such as "We Want Student-Athletes."
It's a program that currently takes as much pride in itself as any of the more high-profile and successful teams on campus, in whose shadows they have lurked for a very long time. In fact, of the 176 members of the school's athletic Hall of Fame, only seven of them have any connection to wrestling at all.
That could change very soon under McCoy and a coaching staff that includes former All-America wrestlers such as Yonushonis and Todd Beckerman (Nebraska), an ex-Navy coach, and an individual national champion in Jason Powell (Nebraska).
"We have one of the top staffs in the country," McCoy said. "Every member of our staff has been on an NCAA podium (symbolic of a top-three individual finish) and has had a level of success nationally.
"Combine that with a desire to be the best and we're on a par with anybody."
But for now, it's fair to ask the following question:
Can Maryland -- which has hosted the NCAA championship meet but has never won a national team title -- realistically put itself on the same level with programs like Oklahoma State (won or shared 34 national championships), Iowa (22 titles, including the last two) and Minnesota (three titles, two runner-up finishes this decade)?
McCoy doesn't equivocate one bit.
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think it was possible."
Each sport at Maryland has its own coterie of famous names. Football brings to mind people like Tatum, Esiason, White and Henderson. Basketball conjures up images of Bias, Blake, Langhorne and Coleman. The lacrosse teams evoke memories of Urso and Adams.
You may not know Maryland's wrestlers right now, but Byrne, Bell, Krom and Taylor have already earned themselves lofty places in Terrapin history.
Last season alone, the four co-captains -- all heading into their senior seasons -- combined for three ACC titles and a school-record-tying three All-America team berths. The Terps won a second straight conference title (edging Virginia by two points both times) and earned their first top-10 national finish in 43 years.
Brendan Byrne (125 pounds) posted 22 wins in 32 matches last season. Steven Bell (133) went 29-7 and earned a sixth-place national finish, while Alex Krom (25-6 at 141) won his final consolation match at St. Louis and was fifth-best in the country in his weight class.
At 197 pounds, Hudson Taylor ripped off a 38-8 mark (including 19 pins) and a third-place NCAA showing. Taylor's All-America berth was his second straight honor. In 2008, he became the Terps' first wrestler to achieve that laurel in 11 years and his 37-3 sophomore season means he is now an amazing 75-11 over the past two winters.
The team is deep as well, as it heads into the coming season having lost just one redshirt senior.
Mike Letts (174) is coming off a 26-3 campaign and Lou Ruland, wrestling in the same weight class as Byrne, won 21 of 31 matches last year. Like Krom, Jon Kohler (Mount St. Joseph's) wrestled at 141 and posted a fine 24-11 record himself.
It is a roster so loaded with talent that Hereford product Josh Asper -- one of only three Maryland prep stars ever to win four state titles -- went 34-7 at 165 pounds, but shared the weight class with Brian Letters, who logged a 23-11 mark.
Asper, Kohler, Dulaney’s James Knox, Calvert Hall's Owen Smith and Mount St. Joe's Danny Orem -- a two-time National Prep All-American -- are just some of the Baltimore-area graduates who have chosen to keep the good times rolling at College Park.
But in wrestling, it's been tough for a lot of colleges and universities to build or sustain anything in recent years.
The 1972 statute known as Title IX -- which guarantees equal athletic opportunities for men and women -- has forced, by McCoy's estimate, roughly 300 schools encompassing all NCAA divisions either to cut back or eliminate wrestling programs.
Even though McCoy is currently benefiting from administrative support for his team, he has an interesting take on the 37-year-old controversy.
"It's not all Title IX's fault," McCoy said. "The whole idea of the interpretation of the law is where it gets to be us versus them, and that's not right. You're not going to find one person out there that says females should not be able to play college athletics.
"Where it really gets skewed is the idea of equal versus equitable. In the men's programs, Division I football and wrestling are not equal because they're not the same sport. In football, you've got a 50,000-seat stadium, and in wrestling you have a 1,000-seat gym. It's non-revenue versus revenue, so saying they're equal doesn't necessarily fit.
"But when you talk about equitable, as long as our program has everything we need to be competitive, we're okay. I believe if Title IX focused more on equity, it would be much better interpreted by people."
And if Maryland's wrestlers can put together a third straight stellar season, it will be another step out of the shadows of the school's better-known teams. But McCoy doesn't see it that way.
"We are 27 sports," McCoy said. "There are tiers of support and tradition and success. The top tier is football and basketball and the attention they get, and that's not going to change. They're the highest generating revenue sports in our country.
"But the great thing about Maryland is that men's soccer has won national championships and is always in the final four. Field hockey and women's lacrosse, I don't know how many national titles they have, I've lost count. At a lot of schools, you have revenue sports and then Olympic sports and we're right there. As far as success goes, we're around seventh or eighth (on campus) with what we've accomplished here the last two years."
With those accomplishments, Maryland's wrestlers are forging their own identity.
Just as other teams talk about the "Oriole Way" or playing "Ravens football," McCoy knows what it means to be a "Maryland wrestler."
"When you wrestle someone from Maryland," McCoy said, "we're going to be in shape, we're going to go hard, we're going to wrestle whistle-to-whistle, we're not going to stop, we're going to be technically superior, we're going to be the best we can be.
"It's really nothing that you won't hear from a lot of other people, but we're going to go out there and we're going to dominate."
Issue 139: July 2009