Jamie Beghtol likes mano a mano, even when the combat's thigh to thigh. The Laurel ninth-grader is a diehard wrestler. "It gets pretty intense," says the self- possessed 14-year-old, five feet nine inches and 148 pounds of brawn and brains. "Sometimes it gets to the point where you just wanta rip the other guy's face off. That's because you're mad at yourself. It's one on one, and if you mess up, you have nobody to blame but yourself." In a stuffy high-school gym in Silver Spring the other night, Beghtol and a dozen other kids were writhing in pairs on a sweat- slick mat. This was the high point of the wrestling practice, a round-robin of bouts known as "doggy-dog," occasionally misheard as "dog eat dog." "It's pretty much the same thing," shrugs Larry Hill, the coach. Hill, a homebuilder by trade who coaches in the Capital Junior League, and Norm Welch, a title insurance adjuster when not helping Hill, crouched to shout encouragement or reprimands as the situation warranted. "Do not allow this man to get his head into your armpit," Hill yelled at the Fanzo brothers, 13-year-old Matt and 15-year-old Chris, a scrappy duo from Crofton who've been wrestling competitively nearly half their lives. "If you do," he warned the tangled two, "you'll lose the move." Hill, 31, a former varsity wrestler, started the Capital Junior League 11 years ago, and is president this year; now the league comprises a score of squads in Maryland and Virginia for hundreds of kids aged eight to 15, many of whom end up wrestling varsity for high-school teams. "All four of my returning champs came from this program," said Paint Branch wrestling coach Butch Hilliard, who'd happened by the practice and stayed to watch. Hill, whose tightly wrapped frame, replete with bulging biceps, has yet to start unraveling, says wrestling is "an individual thing, not a group thing, and you win on your own merits. Each kid sets his own destiny, and everybody gets a shot at glory." At practice, one of four conducted each week, glory seemed safely out of reach. Hill first sent the kids scurrying up and down five flights of stairs, then ordered up a complement of situps and pushups, stirred in some jumping jacks, more situps and pushups, then leg-stretching and neck-strengthening exercises -- all of which looked backbreaking. Judging by the groans and gasps -- and this was child's play compared to the late-season routine -- you'd think the coach was heading up the Spanish Inquisition. Next, Hill demonstrated the double-leg takedown, the single-leg takedown, the cross-face and sprawl plus a variety of setups and deflections. Beghtol, who has wrestled in the league for the last three years while playing fullback and middle linebacker at school, was "dummy" to Hill's "shooter" for the demonstrations, taking whatever abuse the coach could devise. One of the team's top wrestlers, he spent the better part of an hour getting slapped to the mat. It all looked painful, but he dreaded only the cross-face, a move pitting wrist against nose. Wrestling's much tougher than football, Beghtol said afterward. "My mom doesn't like to watch us wrestle, she thinks it hurts us," he said cheerfully, "but I've seen some mothers who've been right down on the mat during meets, ready to punch out the ref. My dad loves it. "It's really a sport where you have to be quick on your reflexes. If a guy is super strong and another guy is real smart, the guy who's smart will win. No doubt about it. You can't go out there and muscle someone. "It's a good sport to get into, that's for sure. One of the things you learn f and it hurt. Larry just popped it back in and I went on with the match." Hill doesn't bother to hide his pride in his team, even boasting that "last year, almost 92 percent of my kids took showers after the meets, just like the high-school wrestlers. The other coaches were amazed." But before hygiene comes honor, he said. "There was one kid who came to the team having never won a match. He'd lost 20 in two years," Hill said. "Then he won his first four matches, one right after the other. I tell you, you could just see the look of achievement in his eyes." He made a fist. "It's a great confidence-builder."

THE YOUNG AND THE WRESTLERS To find out about the program, call Larry Hill at 301/946-6542.