Wrestling: Damascus draws from strong youth program; Alex Pratte goes from e-mail to walk-on at Pittsburgh

January 15

When the No. 4 Damascus wrestling team hosts Clarksburg next Wednesday, Coach John Furgeson knows the gym will be a little more crowded than usual.

The defending Maryland 4A/3A dual champion Swarmin’ Hornets, who have a combined record of 59-1 over the past three years, will wrestle on one mat. And the Damascus Cougars, a youth travel team that is largely responsible for that success, will face a youth team from Frederick County on another.

While most youth programs in the area draw their talent from an entire county or region, the Cougars don’t cast such a wide net. All of their wrestlers come from the Damascus Sports Association and usually live in the same six-mile radius. All of them must be eligible to one day compete at Damascus High School.

“It’s all home-grown right here,” said Fern Jaramillo, the association’s wrestling commissioner.

That association, which fields three intramural teams and two travel teams, has served as a feeder program for the high school since 1978. Twenty-five of the Damascus’s 35 members have passed through the DSA wrestling program, including 12 of the 14 wrestlers currently in the starting lineup.


John Furgeson, last year’s All-Met Coach of the Year, has a strong feeder program in the Damascus Sports Association. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

“Our program is built off of DSA,” said junior Mikey Macklin, who competed there for three years and is now the Post’s No. 1 wrestler at 113 pounds. “If you look back, all of our successful wrestlers now were successful middle-school wrestlers. If you look at the stats and everything, it points straight to DSA.”

The continuity between the youth and high school programs has been a recipe for individual success, as Damascus has won 14 individual state titles since 1994. But it has also fostered a camaraderie among those individuals, as some of the Swarmin’ Hornets have been wrestling together for as long as they’ve been wrestling.

“They fight for each other,” said assistant coach Eddie Obendorfer, who also volunteered with the DSA wrestling program for more than a decade. “If you ever watch one of our high school matches, you see how this team thrives off each other, which is interesting in what most people would consider an individual sport. But we’ve brought this team concept to these kids, and they’ve bought in.”

Nobody has been as important to the program’s development as Obendorfer, who has hopped between the intramural, travel team and high school ranks since 1998 to coach his children. Two of his sons, Scott and Cory, are standouts on the team, while a third, Eddie Jr., graduated from Damascus in 2008 and went on to follow his father’s lead and wrestle at Virginia Tech.

Obendorfer said he has taught the same techniques and principles to every wrestler at every step along the way, creating a seamless transition between the youth program and the high school. He and the other coaches have also placed an emphasis on sportsmanship and other life lessons that go beyond the mat.

“There’s a lot of bad stuff out there,” Obendorfer said, “and I think we kind of have this environment within our wrestling community — I’m not going to say they’re shielded from it completely — but we’ve kind of built this positive environment for the kids.”

The strong ties between the Swarmin’ Hornets and Damascus Sports Association will once again come to the forefront Wednesday night, when they will share a gym on the sixth annual “Cougar Night.”

Reigning state champions like Macklin will compete alongside future state champions. And in the middle of it all, Furgeson will likely sneak a peek across the gym, where his children will compete for the youth team.

“We’ve got something good going on,” Furgeson said. “We just want to keep it rolling.”

Pratte markets himself, earns spot with Panthers

Langley’s Alex Pratte had little to lose when he decided to fire off an e-mail to University of Pittsburgh wrestling Coach Jason Peters in July.

The 145-pound senior’s reasoning was pragmatic.

“I honestly wasn’t expecting him to e-mail me back,” said Pratte, who has a 16-7 record this season. “But when I sent it off, the worst thing that could happen is they wouldn’t respond. Best-case scenario, they’d want me to go there.”

Pratte couldn’t have anticipated a same-day reply from assistant coach Matt Kocher, the follow-up phone conversations, or the ultimate result of his self-recruiting.

“They said if I commit to them, then they’ll commit to me,” Pratte said. “I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Just like that, the kid who adopted wrestling in elementary school because he was lukewarm on that other winter sport with the nets and hardwood earned himself a spot with one of the nation’s top programs. The Panthers won a third consecutive Eastern Wrestling League title last season and are currently ranked No. 13 in the nation.

Pratte will enter Fitzgerald Field House as a walk-on with a roster slot, but can earn scholarship money if he cracks the starting lineup.

If December’s Ray Oliver Tournament is any indication, Pratte has room to grow. He fell by pin to The Post’s top-ranked wrestler at 145, Alfred Bannister. But Pratte took the loss in stride.

“Now, I know where I’m at compared to the No. 1 guy, and I know what I have to do to get there,” he said. “After that match, I’m very confident that if I keep doing what I’m doing it’s just a matter of time before I’m competing with them.”

For the balance of his senior season, Pratte will hone his mental approach.

“When I see those Division 1 wrestlers, they’re the toughest guys there are,” he said. “And I want to be just like that.”

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