Mark Mangrum's unexpressionless face makes it appear that the escapes, cradles and other wrestling moves he and his Ireton High teammates practice are as exciting as a philosophy class on a Saturday morning. He doesn't appear to have his heart in it.

Not so, says Coach Paul Triplett. "He's kind of like a machine. His facial expressions don't change, but he puts in 100 percent. That's just the way he is."

Although complacency is something Mangrum hasn't encountered, he is guarding against it this season, and in the process is approximating his older brother Eric's knack for pinning opponents. Coming off a season in which Mark Mangrum said he suffered his "worst" record as a wrestler (five losses in 47 matches), he seems off to his best start in four years. He had a 9-0 record with nine pins at 126 pounds before the holiday tournaments.

In addition, he is making short work of his matches, not letting one get past the second period. "For the beginning of the year, I'm in pretty good shape," he said. "I improved a lot on my feet."

Youngest of a trio of good wrestlers in his family, he already is sound in fundamental skills. But a summer that included weight lifting and competing at the Junior Olympics in Iowa -- where he also met former Olympic wrestling champion Dan Gable -- helped him add strength as well.

Brother Eric, a former high school champion and now a freshman at George Mason University, even showed him a new takedown move. But that's nothing new in this family. "We share our techniques," Mark said. "Whatever is comfortable, we work it out between us."

Mark Mangrum has set goals this year. Not only does he want to break John Freeman's Virginia high school record of 134 career victories (Mangrum has 117), he wants to become the first four-timestate independent champion, as well as a three-time national prep champion.

Family ties and a yearning for better competition are probably what brought him to Ireton in 1982. Then, he was an eighth grader wrestling for Kettering Boys Club near his home in Upper Marlboro and seemed bound to follow his brothers to Douglass Senior High. Although Prince George's County is a good area for wrestling, he said he knew the competition is better in Virginia, and felt he could improve by competing there.

After the first quarter, his brothers Rod and Eric transferred to Ireton. Mark Mangrum followed them the next quarter. An indirect factor in their decision to transfer may have been that the former wrestling coach at Ireton, Kevin Colabucci, lived near the Mangrums and assisted at Bullis Prep, where Rod Mangrum often practiced.

Triplett, in his first season at Ireton, inherited Mark Mangrum but he also got a varsity team that was returning only six starters. "When I took over," he said, "I knew I was coming into a program that was losing a lot of good wrestlers. We also had a lot of injuries, which didn't help any."

Luckily, he knew about Mark Mangrum from Colabucci, who was his roommate when they wrestled at the University of Maryland. That gave him someone to build the team around. "It was a bright spot, knowing you've got a kid like that," he said. "He's definitely got champion qualities. His leadership is starting to come out."

The transition didn't hurt Mangrum, either.

"Switching (coaches) has helped me," he said. "Both of them work really hard at conditioning and drilling. They run good workouts."

Triplett has also eliminated Mangrum's one major weakness, starting slowly in matches, by stressing intensity. "He's really aggressive on top," he said. "He'll ride you to death, and he's aggressive on both sides (of his opponent). He never quits; just keeps going after you."

That was what Mangrum lacked at one point last season, when he lost five times, the only losses in his career. "Most of it was based on attitude," he said. "I didn't have that killer instinct (to) start pounding on someone." He recovered in time for the Virginia Independent and National Championships, which he won at 119 pounds.

Burnout from wrestling 50 matches may have been the cause, but Triplett doesn't think so. "It crosses your mind, but I don't see it with him because he's a seasoned wrestler, and he wants to do it in college," he said. Judging from the number of colleges Mangrum has talked to so far (five), they evidently want him to do it for them also.

Moving up to 126 this season has meant stockier opponents, but Mangrum's record indicates he has adapted well.

"This is my senior year," he said. "I have to go bananas."

With the increased strength and some goals in sight, he does not envision any letdowns. If anything, he says he has more of a killer instinct this year than ever before, a feeling that encourages Triplett.

"It makes my job a little easier," he said.