What a difference a year makes.

Twelve months ago Kevin Lethbridge was an untested sophomore aspiring for a spot on the varsity wrestling team at Paint Branch High School, one of several schools in the hunt for a Montgomery County championship.

This fall Lethbridge and Paint Branch begin the season as defending Maryland state champions. Lethbridge proved the class of the 98-pound weight division and Paint Branch rose to the top as team champion.

Although Paint Branch's passage to the pinnacle was not suprising, the fact that a sophomore led the way was... except to then-Coach Dave Simon.

"I expected him to be good," says Simon, who has hung up his whistle to concentrate on teaching math at the Burtonsville school. "I had seen him wrestle in the Beltway League and he came up and worked out at Paint Branch once or twice. I knew he had a chance at a state title."

Simon's optimism and Lethbridge's success dovetail at the word experience. Lethbridge spent four years wrestling in the youth Beltway League, compiling a 72-2-1 record and going undefeated his last three years.

"He has lots of experience," explains Butch Hilliard, who succeeds Simon after seven years as a Panther assistant. "His brother Ronnie, who wrestled at Paint Branch, spent a lot of time with him, teaching the basics.

"He has good leverage, excellent balance and he is very smart. He doesn't have tremendous strength or speed, but he uses his body to the utmost. His mind and his body work together very well."

Despite his extensive background in the sport, Lethbridge had much to prove, even to himself.

"I was never that sure of myself last year, but I seem to wrestle better when I'm nervous," he said. "It gets the adrenaline flowing, makes you quicker. People kept telling me I didn't have a chance at a state championship because I was only a sophomore."

Upon reaching the final of the state tournament there was plenty of reason to wrestle his nervous best. Besides individual honors, the team title depended on his match with Ray Harbeson of Overlea. A Lethbridge victory meant a Paint Branch championship. Harbeson could clinch victory for the Baltimore school.

Lethbridge won, 4-0, controlling Harbeson for 4:44 of the six-minute match and avenging one of his two Beltway League losses.

This year Lethbridge moves up a couple of weight classes to 112. With weight, he has added confidence.

"He was very quiet and reserved last year," says Hilliard. "He is more talkative and at ease now. He'll offer suggestions, moves that he has picked up. It's a pleasure to have him in the wrestling room. Everyone should have the luxury of a returning state champ. The other kids can learn just from watching him."

This year brings another challenge, complacency.

"I think it'll be a little easier to psych myself for matches this year," surmises Lethbridge. "Last year I didn't expect anything.This year I may expect too much.

"I'd love to do it again. I'd like to win a couple more state titles. We'll find out when the time comes."

Paint Branch will be hard pressed to repeat this year. State runner-up Seneca Valley returns both its individual champs, Mike Hill (112) and Joe White (132.) Northwood and Peary are always in Montgomery County's upper crust.

Laurel, High Point, Bowie and Largo are traditional powers in Prince George's County. Oakland Mills defends in Howard County. Great Mills has captured the last seven Southern Maryland Athletic Conference titles. Annapolis hopes to repeat in Anne Arundel County.

Lake Braddock, Hayfield, Gar-Field, Falls Church, West Springfield and Robinson placed in the top 15 in Virginia last year. H. D. Woodson has won every Interhigh title except one, last year's upset by Ballou.

O'Connell, Ireton, Good Counsel and St. Stephen's should be among the best private squads.