Centennial’s Nathan Kraisser, left, and Oakland Mills’s Tony Farace have matched up four times in their high school careers, but compete in different classifications in state. (Jonathan Newton/WASHINGTON POST)

For Nathan Kraisser and Tony Farace, the buzz started three years ago. The freshmen at nearby Howard County high schools — Kraisser at Centennial, Farace at Oakland Mills — both won their first Maryland individual state wrestling championships, bringing along talk of just how good the pair could be.

Now, the seniors are poised to achieve rare status: four-time state champions. Thanks to a fortuitous mix of desire, talent and good health, Kraisser, a 126-pounder, and Farace, a 120-pounder, can become just the fifth and sixth wrestlers to win four Maryland public school state titles. They begin their bids Friday at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House.

“After [the first title], you’re a marked man,” Centennial Coach Dave Roogow said. “Everyone wants a piece of you for the first or second year. Then if you keep it up, people might start running away from you.”

Few wrestlers enter high school with the physical and mental maturity to win a title right away, but Kraisser and Farace have been groomed for success since starting out with the Howard County Vipers club team — a program stocked with future champions.

Farace remembers struggling in the early days to match up with Kraisser as well as McDonogh junior Logan Meister and Loyola Blakefield junior David Mohler, who have won Maryland Independent Schools titles.

“Getting my butt whooped every day [stunk], but it made me who I am,” Farace said. “I think you need that every once in a while. The guys that stick it out get a lot better.”

Kraisser moved on to train with former Olympian Cary Kolat after a few years before bursting onto the national scene when he won at Tulsa Nationals — one of the country’s toughest junior league tournaments — as an eighth-grader.

“That’s when I felt like I’d moved up to the next level,” said Kraisser, a North Carolina recruit who is ranked 11th in the nation by www.intermatwrestle.com. “It gave me a good gauge for what I could do.”

As freshmen, Kraisser and Farace wrestled at 103 pounds, and they squared off in the Howard County tournament. Kraisser took the county crown and has won all four of his career meetings with Farace, but those losses didn’t affect Farace’s state title hopes — Farace wrestles in the 2A/1A classification while Kraisser competes in the 4A/3A. Wrestling on adjacent mats in the 2009 finals, they both took the initial step, earning their first state gold medals.

Maintaining success

After winning his first state title, Farace was surprised how quickly his family and friends started talking about a possible four-peat, barely allowing time to enjoy the accomplishment.

He acknowledges that those expectations weighed on him early in his career. While he never seriously entertained the idea of giving up the sport, taking the mat became a chore.

Over the past two seasons, Farace said he has changed his focus and rediscovered his passion. The wrestler known for controlling opponents in his signature cross-face cradle move earned his third career title with a 4-0 win over North Hagerstown’s Brendan Colbert last March and sits at 158-5 for his career.

“I wasn’t having a whole lot of fun with it,” said Farace, who was named All-Met last year. “I think I just put too much pressure on myself, and it got better when I stopped worrying about what everybody else thought.”

Kraisser has flourished in the face of that pressure. The three-time All-Met has been dominant in the state tournament, scoring bonus-point victories in all 12 of his state matches over the past three seasons with five pins.

Kraisser, who took all three of his losses this season at the prestigious Walsh Jesuit tournament in December, has a 148-6 career record, including a perfect record against state public school competition.

“You can’t just eye up a state championship,” said River Hill Coach Brandon Lauer, a three-time state champion who went 111-0 in his varsity career. “You’ve got to go through four guys every year to do it. That’s just tough.”

Importance of health

For all the hard work it takes to win a state title, the difference between the handful of four-timers and Maryland’s 35 three-time winners — not including Farace and Kraisser — can come down to luck. Three local wrestlers in the past decade have had bids for a fourth title stopped in their senior season by injury.

Even after watching the tape of his Jan. 24 meeting with Kraisser several times, Farace remains confused. Less than a minute into their first matchup in almost two years, Kraisser hit a takedown, sending Farace flying toward the mat onto his left shoulder.

“I’ve landed in some funky ways before,” Farace said. “This time I didn’t land very hard, but I could feel it right away.”

Farace finished the bout with Kraisser, losing by technical fall, but the injury — diagnosed as a sprained AC joint with a slight muscle tear — was a concern.

After resting for most of three weeks, Farace wrestled without limitation at the county and region tournaments. He continues to complete weekly physical therapy sessions in an effort to regain strength and range of motion.

Kraisser — who points to a broken a finger last year as the most serious injury of his career — said he will focus on what he can control, sticking with the mind-set that has him within reach of his fourth state crown.

“I’ve just tried to keep improving every year, every match, every practice,” Kraisser said. “The goal has always been to improve each day, and I think I’ve been able to do that.”