When Eugene Toms was growing up, he practiced wrestling moves at night before falling asleep. Today, the Suitland High senior dreams of becoming the first state champion in school history at the end of the season.
Toms, who won the 125-pound title at the Bowie Invitational last weekend, went 21-5 last season and placed fifth at the Maryland 4A/3A tournament. He also won the Prince George's County and 4A South Region titles and helped Suitland to a 12-1 dual meet record.
"Having Gene on this team is a real blessing," said Suitland Coach Michael Lynn, whose Rams placed fifth at the Bowie Invitational. "He's one of the best wrestlers we've ever had at Suitland, but he's also a great person. . . . This program has come a long way in the past three years, and much of that is due to Gene's presence."
Despite his talents, Toms almost went unnoticed by Suitland's coaches. He transferred to Suitland midway through his sophomore year, but did not join the wrestling team until the end of the season. He competed in just one regular season match but wound up placing fourth in the county and fifth in the region at 119 pounds.
"When Gene walked into practice [as a freshman], we had no idea what we were getting," said Lynn, who is in his third season at Suitland. "But when he started working out a week later, we found out he was better than anybody we'd ever had. That's when I knew this kid was going to be special."
Toms proved his worth last season, placing second at the Bowie Invitational and leading Suitland to the county championship against Bowie. Despite fracturing his big toe against Bowie's Jonas Bray, Toms won his match and qualified for the state tournament.
Toms overcame another hurdle at the state tournament, fighting off flu and placing fifth. His most inspirational match was in the first round when he overcame a fever of 102 degrees to beat Wilde Lake's Rob Jackson, 14-12. Toms advanced to the semifinals by pinning Sherwood's Mike Fitzgerald, but got pinned by eventual state champion Fran Jackson of North Carroll. He then battled through the loser's bracket to earn his first state medal.
"My body wanted to give up, but I told my coach I would give it everything I had," said Toms, who began wrestling for the Clinton Jets when he was 7. "I was disappointed because I thought I should have done better, but all in all it was a good season."
Toms also had a good season off the mat. Working with Lynn in the Maryland's Tomorrow Program for at-risk students, Toms's grades went from Cs and Ds to As and Bs.
"A lot of people had written him off as a bad kid, a troublemaker," said Lynn, who holds mandatory study hall every day before practice. "But we never gave up on him. We worked with him on and off the mat and helped him develop into a fine person."
Not to mention one of the best wrestlers in the state.
"Off the mat, Gene is a real sweet kid but once he steps on that mat, he becomes an animal," Lynn said. "He's always one step ahead of you. He's always thinking out there and planning his next move. He knows so much about wrestling, it's like having another coach out there on the mat. He teaches me as much as he teaches the other kids."
As for his wrestling moves, Toms no longer practices them at night. Instead, he hits the weight room after practice and prepares for his next opponents.
"I'm glad I decided to wrestle [at Suitland]," said Toms, who attended Douglass before transferring, but did not wrestle there. "I got involved with the wrong crowd when I was at Douglass and I faded away from sports. But since I came to Suitland, I've turned things around . . . A few years ago, all I wanted to do was party and hang out with my friends. Now, all I want to do is win a state title and go to college."
CAPTION: Suitland's Eugene Toms, left, gets leverage on Frederick's Charles Patton at Bowie Invitational wrestling meet.