Although the start of their season is two weeks away, wrestlers throughout the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference will face their first opponent today: Thanksgiving dinner.

The holiday feast is a foe that, if not taken seriously, has the ability to knock the stuffing out of a wrestler's hopes of maintaining his weight in a sport that requires each participant to step on the scale before competing.

"It's tough; it's real tempting to not watch what you eat when you see all that food in front of you," said Lackey senior heavyweight James Dunkel. "But you have to maintain a certain level of discipline."

Coaches stress the same thing--discipline--on a day when food is everywhere.

"Thanksgiving is a holiday where people tend to just over-gorge themselves and sit around," Calvert Coach Dave Kistler said. "And when you are an athlete in training--it doesn't matter in what sport--and you are trying to cut the fat in your diet and build muscle, those two things don't go hand in hand. The key here is balance. After you eat, go for a run or go do some form of exercise to work it off."

And to ensure that they do, many SMAC wrestling coaches plan to hold practice on Friday to burn off the Thanksgiving feast.

"That's kind of like insurance," said Thomas Stone Coach Joe Higgs, who said he is more concerned that his team won't practice on Thanksgiving. "I've learned to accept Thanksgiving, but we're going to have a hard practice the next day."

Although wrestling is one of the most weight-conscious sports, it doesn't make it the only one affected by Thanksgiving.

"If you were a basketball player and you were training for your upcoming season, do you think you would eat as much as you could?" Lackey Coach Terry Green said. "I don't think so. I don't care what sport you play, diet is always a big concern. The bottom line is you just have to restrict what you eat."

Northern Coach Jeff Fowler, a former wrestler, said he learned to deal with sumptuous holiday spreads, and that makes it easy for him to relax as his wrestlers face the same challenge.

"Athletes know that what they eat impacts how they perform," Fowler said. "Most kids know how to handle it."

But when it comes down to it, Lackey senior Emanuel Leon said, wrestling is as much a team sport as it is an individual one. And no wrestler wants to hurt the team.

"If you just stuff your face and then don't make weight and can't wrestle," he said, "all the sweat, blood and tears you shed during practice are pointless. You just wasted your time, and, more importantly, you let your team down."

CAPTION: Lackey wrestler Emanuel Leon said that if a careless athlete eats himself out of his weight class, "all the sweat, blood and tears you shed during practice are pointless."