It was two years ago that heavyweight wrestler Joe Hall of McNamara dominated the sport by pinning all his opponents en route to an undefeated season.

One of Hall's opponents that season was Phil Bryant of DeMatha. A sophomore then, Bryant had the strength to be great, but all his dexterity and desire weren't enough to defeat Hall, then a senior.

But Hall is now a sophomore on the University of Virginia football team, and it is now Bryant's turn to attempt to repeat the McNamara great's domination -- only in a different weight class. Last season as a junior, Bryant's opponents were usually either pinned quickly or lost embarrassingly on points, as the DeMatha All-Met posted an impeccable 42-0 record.

This season, with most of the teams being equal and with each weight class having more than one talented wrestler, Bryant is the focus of attention in the 185-pound class. Ranked first in the monthly Maryland state wrestling poll, Bryant, who also won the National Preps Championship last season, is prepared to live up to the billing projected for him.

"I want to win the national preps title again," Bryant said. "My goal is to be the best that I can be every time that I get on the mat. I'm not thinking about winning or losing right now; I just want to wrestle my best."

Bryant, however, according to DeMatha Coach Dick Messier, has yet to get into top form this season, but it's in February and March that his opponents need to be concerned.

"Right now he has to get into shape," said Messier. "If he is going to be beat, now is the time to do it because once he gets into shape, he'll be tough to beat."

That same theory applies to most of the top wrestlers in the area. Not all of them are favored every time they step onto the mat like Bryant, but the experience and wrestling knowledge that they bring into this season's competition is what makes experts deem this the season of "close encounters."

Said Paint Branch Coach Butch Hilliard: "Everybody seems to have a couple of strong individuals. Nobody seems to have a dominant team, but just a couple of good wrestlers."

Old Mill from Anne Arundel County may be the best overall team in the area.

The Patriots, who were runner-ups in the Class AA-A state meet last season, are ranked second in the state this season.

Even though Old Mill has five wrestlers ranked in the top 10 in their respective weight classes, Patriots Coach Mike Hampe isn't banking on his team being as dominant this season.

Old Mill will rely heavily on Bill Boyce, top ranked in the state at 155. He's a wrestler who garnered a lot of praise and respect from his opposition the past two seasons. Last season, he lost an exhilarating 145-pound state title match to Eastern Vocational Tech's Joey Blast, 8-0 in overtime.

But the weaknesses that Boyce had in the past likely won't reoccur this season.

"He has had a problem learning how to wrestle guys that back up on him," said Hampe. "But we have corrected that problem."

The 98-pound weight class features Joe Vukovich of Rockville, who excels in this division.

Vukovich, top-ranked this season, didn't make it past the state tournament quarterfinals last season, losing by a technical fall to Eastern Vocational Tech's Tom Peluso.

This season Vukovich is working the mat better and Rockville Coach Ed Heincelman said, "It is going to take a tough wrestler to beat him." Larry Bassin of Whitman may be Vukovich's biggest worry.

Bassin was runner-up in the county and nearly pinned eventual 98-pound state champion David Land of Laurel.

At the 105-pound weight class, two long-time rivals, Sean Burgess of Parkdale and Land of Laurel, are tied for first in the state in the rankings. Burgess beat Land three times during the season last year, but Land countered by conquering Burgess when the two met for the 98-pound state championship, winning 4-2 in a heated contest.

Burgess and Land will meet more than once again this season and because they are so equal, just who the victor will be isn't quite certain. "It depends on how they wrestle when they wrestle," said Laurel Coach Richard Markovitch. "It's who wrestles the best match when they need to."

Scott Hill of O'Connell is by far the mostly highly touted 112-pound wrestler going into the season. Hill only lost three matches last season but was a second-team All-Met selection at 105, mainly because of Ireton's Joe Riley, who was responsible for all three of Hill's losses.

In his final season, Hill has come out wrestling relentlessly, and so far this season hasn't had a point scored against him.

The 119-pound class is another division dominated by two top-quality competitors. Marty Fowler of Douglass and Bob Bunting of Bullis, ranked first and second, respectively, in the state, probably won't have the opportunity to settle who is really the top gun this season. Bunting has the backing of a historically great Bullis wrestling program, but Fowler, who won the Maryland Class B-C state championship at 105 last season, is the foundation of the Eagles' program.

Fowler, only a junior, was 39-1 last season, but he is hampered by an injury right now that has sidelined him in the early season. His coach, Bill Johnson, sees a bright future for his ace when he does return to action. "He is the first state champion in the school's history," said Johnson. "He has 67 wins and he is going for the state record {130 wins}. He just has meant a lot to our program."

At 126, Todd Deltufo of High Point made a run at the Maryland Class AA-A state crown last season, but Gunner Burling of Laurel bested him, 11-1, in the final. Deltufo, who is ranked second in the state, won't have an easy ride this season because Jeff Bussick of Parkdale and Greg Wise of Old Mill, who also have the potential to win the state tournament in March, are also in the division.

Bowie, which has won four Class AA-A state titles this decade, once again is a force to contend with. The Bulldogs have two tough competitors in the 132- and 138-pound weight classes. At 132, Robbie Waldom, ranked third in the state, has a line of good wrestlers to beat to reach the pinnacle of his weight class, but he has been looking strong in the early season. At 138, Greg Welch, who is ranked second in the state, is the frontrunner, but Dwayne Henry of Oxon Hill may present him numerous problems when the two tangle.

Andre Kelley of Bullis, like Bryant of DeMatha, may be unbeatable this season. Kelley, a first team All-Met the past two years, won the national preps at 138 last season as he registered a 40-3 mark.

For Basher El-Fiky of Whitman, a season can make a big difference. El-Fiky had the power to reign as state champion in the 155-pound weight class last season, but he suffered a setback in the quarterfinal round, losing 9-4 to Eastern Vocational Tech's Lenny Katillas. But El-Fiky, who only lost one match in placing third in the state, has a new demeanor this season and is favored to win the 167-pound weight class.

Deciding who's the finest of the heavyweight wrestlers is difficult. Jim Chroniger of DeMatha, an All-Met two years ago as a sophomore, can beat almost anyone in his weight class. Anyone, that is, except maybe for the two wrestlers ranked ahead of him: Quinton Gough of Oakland Mills and Elbert Ouzts of McNamara. Those two are considered the best in this weight class.

Ouzts, an All-Met last season, lost one match and that was in the finals of the national preps. Because of other commitments (he was also an All-Met football player) he has yet to wrestle this season.

But that shouldn't slow the senior. McNamara Coach John Jenkins believes he will be the one to beat. "He is a fantastic wrestler," Jenkins said. "He's not just some blob out there on the mat; he can wrestle. He should be the man to beat."

But Gough presents a strong case for himself. In the spring, wrestling against the stiffest competition in the country, he placed sixth in the National High School Championships in Iowa.