In taking up wrestling as an eighth grader at the school that bears his great-grandfather’s name, Max Smith joined a team that fell short of the conventional definition.
At that time, a handful of students with an interest in the sport would roll out a donated mat in the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School’s cafeteria for informal practice. With no coach on staff, the athletic director would occasionally pop in to check on the youngsters.
Moreover, the Rockville school’s strict adherence to the Jewish principle of Shabbat, which prohibits work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, seemed to preclude the group from growing in a sport in which teams regularly participate in weekend tournaments.
From those humble beginnings, Smith enters this weekend’s Maryland Independent School (MIS) state tournament in Cockeysville as a contender at 152 pounds after leading the Lions — who now boast a former Division I wrestler for a coach and 19 athletes on the roster — to their most successful regular season in school history.
Because of the school policy, Smith must compete unattached at the event, but he makes his final bid for a state title satisfied with his place on the local wrestling scene.
“It would be nice to represent my school,” said Smith, who plans to continue his career at the Naval Academy. “But now, regardless of what the brackets say, everyone knows who I am and what school I go to.”
At the beginning, Liz Smith wondered why her only son continued to stick with the sport. Known as a “lifer” around JDS because he’s attended since kindergarten, Max Smith had shined as a youngster playing baseball, football and ice hockey, but progress on the mat proved much slower without proper guidance.
Smith’s mother would drive him to open tournaments on weekends and then watch as he spent the afternoon trying not to get pinned by more experienced opponents.
“I got mutilated,” Smith says now.
(The Smiths attend a conservative temple and do not regularly observe Shabbat, while the school was founded on pluralistic principles, tailoring its policies to follow orthodox rites to satisfy all branches of the religion. Coach Jordan Lipp said approximately three-fourths of his wrestlers keep Shabbat.)
Smith’s break came when he met Bethesda businessman Alan Meltzer during the shiva, or traditional Jewish mourning period, honoring his grandfather, real estate mogul Robert H. Smith, in early January 2010. Meltzer, a noted local wrestling booster who had donated the mat to Jewish Day in 2005, invited Smith to a dual meet at American University.
From there, Smith, now 18, became a fixture at the Eagles’ matches, developing close relationships with the coaches and many of the wrestlers. He threw himself into training and capitalized on the newfound guidance, improving quickly. Meltzer calls him “a natural.”
Smith’s performance in the classroom also improved at the school with a K-12 enrollment of roughly 1,100. At one point, he even asked to be bumped up to a more challenging courseload, hoping to improve his chances of competing at the next level. He received his acceptance to the Naval Academy two weeks ago.
Meltzer “helped him through a difficult time,” Liz Smith said. Max “was a teenager who needed an outlet and some mentoration and when he met Alan, everything started to come together. . . . He always had it in him and he just needed it brought out.”
When Mike Riley, a longtime Montgomery County public school athletic director, arrived at Jewish Day before the 2010 school year and decided to hire a wrestling coach , Meltzer recommended Lipp, who had recently finished up his college career at American.
Smith credits Lipp, 26, with changing his life over the past three years. The coach has also transformed the Lions.
Lipp’s first order of business was to move the practices out of the cafeteria. Now the team trains in the lower school gymnasium, often working out on one side of a red divider while a grade-school basketball team plays on the other. Smith appreciates that the school now has a mat roller as the wrestlers had to carry the heavy black padding to the cafeteria in the early days.
The team has tripled in size under the new coach, expanded the dual-meet schedule to make up for the lack of tournaments and slowly improved its results, too. The Lions went 9-3 this season, including a 36-35 win over Gonzaga on Jan. 22.
“Before everyone went out for basketball and track and baseball,” Smith said. “Now wrestling is definitely one of those big sports.”
Meantime, Smith has boosted his profile in the local wrestling community, competing year-round. Last year, he took third at the state tournament at 145 and earned an invite to the prestigious National Prep tournament, where he finished eighth. Up a weight class, he currently holds a 16-1 record with the only loss coming to Spalding’s Logan Breitenbach in the finals at the War on the Shore tournament in December, where he also wrestled unattached.
Smith remains a needed leader by example for a group of newcomers eager to learn. At a recent practice, the senior captain directed the team through warmups while Lipp talked to a visitor, and a few days later, the other wrestlers wordlessly filed into line behind Smith for post-match handshakes after finishing out a 48-15 victory at St. Andrew’s.
“I’d be proud to have him on my team,” Georgetown Prep Coach Mike Kubik said. “He’s just an unbelievable kid. He’ll go to the Naval Academy and stick out from the moment he steps on campus. He’s sort of top-shelf like that, really special.”
Lipp views Smith as an exception rather than the future of the program. Henry Franklin, the tournament’s chairman, said he believes Smith to be the only wrestler to compete unattached since the tournament began in 1995, noting that it has turned down entry requests from age-appropriate wrestlers who did not compete for a high school team.
“Our main priority is to give deserving kids the opportunity to compete,” Franklin said.
The coach said none of his other wrestlers have asked to compete at this weekend’s tournament, and he’d be unlikely to direct others toward the delicate path of competing without the school’s sponsorship.
Riley, the athletic director, said the school does not mind if its wrestlers participate in tournaments on the sabbath without its sponsorship but will not consider relaxing its Shabbat policy.
Rather than emphasizing postseason tournaments, Lipp plans to focus his wrestlers on training for the Maccabiah Games, considered the Jewish Olympics. In 2009, the Ohio native won a silver medal at the event held every four years in Israel.
Smith, on the other hand, has been eyeing a state title his entire career. Though MIS tournament officials won’t identify Smith by the school that has held his family name for three decades, he said he’ll likely wear his team-issued singlet at the event. That uniform — bright blue with a yellow Lion paw print — is another new addition since the days of rolling out the mat in the cafeteria.
“You don’t need all the best stuff or to be on the best team in the state to be wrestling at a high level,” Smith said. “It boils down to sacrifice and hard work, regardless of where and who [you are] with.”