Doug McClain wrestled at Catonsville High School but did not achieve state level success as he was injured in the regions twice to end his career. He had talent, though, and took that to Coppin State to wrestle for Kenny Taylor. In an interesting twist, McClain’s father, Doug Sr., convinced Taylor to take up wrestling when they attended Edmondson High School together in 1976.

After a long and highly successful coaching career at Dunbar High School in Baltimore, McClain took over the first year wrestling program at St. Frances Academy, prior to last season, and had immediate success, big success, with the Panthers, earning the honor of being named the 2022-23 Baltimore Banner/VSN Wrestling Co-Coach of the Year.

McClain’s first coaching gig was at New Town in Baltimore County, where he guided the Titans to their first two winning seasons from 2010-2012. Cornell Bass and Fred Bullock convinced McClain to take the helm at Dunbar ahead of the 2012-2013 season.

McClain would lead the Poets to 13 City Dual Meet and Tournament championships. He piloted Dunbar to seven region dual meet finals, where they captured two titles. Both of their trips to the state dual meet championships saw them reach the finals, placing second both times. Dunbar was the first, and only, Baltimore City school to reach a dual meet state championship match.

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In addition, McClain guided six state finalists and two NHSCA All-Americans, including Jorden Pryor, who became the only three-time state champion from Baltimore City and captured a NHSCA National Crown as a senior.

McClain built a winning culture during his time at Dunbar but could never quite reach his full potential as a coach due to the constraints of the public school system in Maryland. He started having discussions with St. Frances Academy, who wanted to start a wrestling program.

“It came up in a conversation about four years ago,” said McClain. “They were interested in starting a wrestling program. The athletic director (Nick Myles) is a graduate from Dunbar. It just wasn’t the right time then.”

That right time arrived this year. When the Baltimore Banner was at St. Frances in October of 2022 for a college recruitment function that McClain orchestrated, we were greeted by an enthusiastic Kenny Hunter, who is St. France’s assistant coach. Hunter was bubbling with excitement and confidence when he proclaimed, “You will be ranking us this year.”

Looking at the history of new programs, it was more likely the Panthers would encounter a considerable number of bumps and other adverse situations, than be a state ranked team. Was it wishful thinking? No new team, in wrestling, or any sport really, is ultra-competitive in their first year (except in new leagues). And to come into the MIAA and achieve significant success was unheard of.

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But that is exactly what St. Frances accomplished.

“I really didn’t know,” McClain reflected. “I knew I wanted to get a group of kids that really wanted to be successful. Let’s just hit the road and be better wrestlers. I got a lot of support at the start, and it just took off from there. The team, because it was so small, came together really, really quickly. The more we were out on the road and the kids wrestled better, everything just started falling into place.”

The Grindstone Duals in early December gave the first indication that this team could be special. Despite giving up four forfeits to defending 3A state champion Chesapeake of Anne Arundel County, they were able to topple the Cougars, winning all but two of the contested matches for a 38-36 win.

“The team did amazing,” McClain remarked. “The first thing is we only had 10 wrestlers wrestle in that match. We gave up 24 points (in forfeits). Everything we drilled that week; everything just came out in that match. So, when it was time for the guys to get a major, or to get a tech fall, to get the team points, everybody was all in. I was just kinda in the moment. I didn’t realize what we actually did until that night. I was just really paying attention to what we were doing on the mat that day.”

The Howdy Duncan Tournament at William Penn in Delaware provided the Panthers with a wider test with 40 teams from New Jersey and Pennsylvania in addition to multiple Delaware schools. They took ten to the event and came away as team champs, placing eight with five finalists and crowning two champions, Ladaynean Simpson (150) and Camren Wright (215).

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The St. Frances wrestling team celebrates its team championship at the SnOverlea Invitational this weekend.
The St. Frances wrestling team, led by head coach Doug McClain (center), celebrates its team championship at the SnOverlea Invitational in January. The Panthers surprised many with their ability to compete in and win many tournaments in their first year as a program. (Billy Buckheit)

“A lot of teams there. Coach Watty (Keith Watson) recommended early in the process that we should go to Howdy Duncan and really test where we were as a team. To see kids work through the big brackets, some had to wrestle back, some with some big wins. Most of them were unseeded. We beat a four seed, we beat a one seed, we beat a couple two seeds. To see them realize that their hard work was paying off was the takeaway from that tournament.”

After Howdy Duncan, the Panthers took a siesta for the holidays. It was time for the banged-up team to heal and prepare for the challenges ahead.

“Basically, I was thinking that the work we were putting in, which was a lot of work, was paying off,” Hunter said about the early success. “Once we got the guys in the room, it was time to fix and repair some of the skills that they may have been doing wrong or things to make them a little bit more ready for the type of competition that we were going to face. Practice is supposed to be harder than the matches and we make it such.”

As soon as the new year kicked off, the Panthers were back in action at The Battle at the Bridge hosted by Bohemia Manor. They were in a tight race with Harford Tech for the team title and won by eight points. The Cobras were stronger than most realized before injuries decimated their lineup.

Once again, they only brought ten wrestlers to the competition. This time, all ten placed, with eight reaching the finals and four being crowned as titlists, Kamren Griffin (120), Ladaynean Simpson (145), Camren Wright (220), and James Carrington (285).

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“It was a different feel this year,” said McClain, who brought Dunbar here several times. “Caravel Academy wasn’t there. But Harford Tech was really tough in that tournament. Most of their guys made it to the semis. Again, it was about the guys putting the bonus points up.

“We had a big upset of Derrick Grant over Charlie Turney from Harford Tech. Derrick pinned him pretty quick (53 seconds). Kamren Griffin beat Tremaine Jackson, who was undefeated at the time. The quality of wrestling that we continued to show in that tournament, again, was the difference for me.”

War on the Shore in Mid-January gave the Panthers their first look at MIAA powers Loyola and Mt. St. Joe. Some lumps were taken but it was a statement performance for St. Frances, finishing sixth in what is considered the toughest tournament in Maryland.

While there would be no champions, and only Camren Wright reached the finals, nine of their ten entries reached the awards stand. The results reinforced not only the team’s state ranking but also that of their wrestlers, many of whom were still relatively unknown on the state level.

“That was probably my favorite tournament,” McClain offered. “I took Dunbar there a few times as well. Every time we had a guy place at the War, they placed higher in the state tournament. We got to wrestle some good teams. We got to wrestle some of the “A” Conference teams that we hadn’t seen all year. There was some buzz that maybe we weren’t at an “A” Conference level yet. So, we had some good wins against Loyola, they had some good wins against us. Same with St. Joe.

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“I believe there were nine schools there that were in the state rankings. We had really good showings against them, letting the kids realize that this was big time wrestling, any mistake could cost you. Really the best part of War on the Shore was how we wrestled afterwards and what they got out of it. Seventh and eighth place, you really earned it in that tournament.”

The next adventure occurred at Overlea’s SnOverlea Invitational Tournament to close the regular season. SFA advanced nine guys to the finals and were holding a huge lead over Calvert Hall. As the consolation rounds played out, everything was going the Cardinals’ way. So much so, that they closed a 70-point gap and went into the heavyweight final in position to win it all.

James Carrington shut that door with a 5-3 win over Maxwell Ohamou propelling his squad to yet another tournament title. Joining him as champs were Christian Wright (113), Ladaynean Simpson (145), and Camren Wright (220). 10 of their 12 entrants placed.

“Karl (Green, Calvert Hall coach) has been someone that’s welcomed us in and welcomed the competition,” confessed McClain. “I have never been involved in a tournament that went down to the last heavyweight match. To have Calvert Hall come back from like 70 points down, to be able to jump ahead of us and go back and forth. As a fan of high school wrestling, I just appreciated that level of competition. Calvert Hall made Overlea very fun, very competitive.”

St. Frances found the MIAA tournament to be tough treading. It was their first exposure to the full experience of MIAA competitiveness. Two wrestlers missing weight didn’t help their cause and morale was low. They dropped matches they were favored in and had bad luck in others. They still claimed the “B” Conference crown, but McClain was focusing on the future and the overall standings that had SFA in sixth place.

While they didn’t completely fall on their face, they finished behind some teams they were ranked ahead of, including Archbishop Spalding and Calvert Hall. All nine of their wrestlers reached the podium by placing in the top six.

“I think the first lump that we had to get over was the fact that it was a Saturday morning weigh-in and not a Friday night,” McClain explained. “So, with that and me having a very young team, I had two really good wrestlers, really good point scorers, miss weight. We did good but it was a tough tournament. I did believe we could be a top three or four team but without those points we weren’t. To see all the kids go out there and place was good for us. Everything about this season, including the MIAA Tournament was just about where we stood against the field. I feel like for first year guys that mostly came from public schools, that weren’t well known kids at all. I think they did very well versus the field.”

With a week to ponder their new reality, adjustments were made for the Maryland Independent Schools State Tournament. Weights were made and the resulting outcome was heads being turned. They avenged a number of their MIAA failures and benefitted from unexpected outcomes. When the dust settled, they were 1.5 points behind third place Landon in the No. 4 position, ahead of all the MIAA teams, except St. Joe, that gave them fits a week earlier.

Ten of their 11 wrestlers collected awards. Eight of them qualified for National Preps. Two reached the finals, Camren Wright (215) and James Carrington (285).

“Call me a dreamer or whatever, but I truly believed we were a top five team in the state,” expressed McClain. “We had our 144 and 150 make weight and be able to compete. I understand some of the teams had injuries or whatnot to keep some of their better guys out of the tournament. This was our first year. They had a 20-year head start or whatever, to have full teams represented. I had 11 guys.

“I was delighted at our finish. Sometimes it takes you to be a little naïve to be successful in a sport like wrestling. You can always pin somebody that’s better than you. We did that a couple times. We wrestled back hard. The proof was in the pudding. A point and a half out of top three for a first-year team with no seniors, and relatively no Blue Chip, top-tier wrestlers, I think was just a testament to the support that we got.”

The National Preps was another learning experience for McClain’s young ranks that contain no seniors, and just two juniors (Camren and Jayson Wright). Camren reached the blood round and Derrick Grant authored an upset of the No. 5 seed at 174, Malvern Prep’s Brian Chamberlain, but that was it for the highlights.

“At National Preps I thought that we were fully prepared to wrestle in the neutral position,” McClain confessed. “The mat wrestling was well and beyond what we had been exposed to. It was a learning lesson. I think it was one of those things, you don’t lose, you learn. All of the guys learned from that experience. Was it overwhelming? Yes, but it wasn’t demoralizing to them. They learned from it, and I think next year we’ll be better off going into that tournament.”

As mentioned earlier, this kind of success is unrivaled. What McClain did with an upstart team is unprecedented and earned him a Coach of The Year designation. St. Frances ended their inaugural campaign ranked No. 9 in the state.

Nine of McClain’s wrestlers ended the season in the state rankings. No. 2 Camren Wright and No. 8 James Carrington were in the top ten. At 144, Ladaynean Simpson was No. 11 after placing fifth in the state. Placing fourth at states were No. 15 Jayson Wright (138) and No. 17 Chase Carpintieri (150). No. 14 Christian Wright (113) and No. 17 Noah Shird (126) were sixth. No. 13 Kamren Griffin (120) and No. 18 Douglas Johnson (190) were seventh at MIS. Derrick Grant was fifth in the state at 165 but did not crack the final state rankings.

“It was amazing,” McClain asserted. “It was completely night and day from public school. The handcuffs were off. I had an Athletic Director that said wherever you need to go, we’ll take care of it. That was a big difference. To be able to have (Kenny) Hunter be a part of this team and work with the kids the way he does, it was amazing. I enjoyed the ride. Wherever we ended up, I knew that we were a good wrestling team, not for a “B” Conference, not for “A” Conference, but state level.

“We have a very young team. They got a taste of it, and they realized that they belong. They beat the kids with the big-time singlet. I appreciated the competition. I appreciate everybody giving us their all. It made us better. That’s why I came to private school, for the competition. I didn’t just want to be city good, or local good, I wanted to be state good. I’m just looking forward to the future with a group of kids that now know that they’re just as good as anybody when they step on the mat.

“The support we received from the school was refreshing from what I was used to. But, the support we got from the parents was paramount to our success. They travelled to all the tournaments and stayed the whole time. Because of them, we always had a large cheering section. They chipped in as needed with rides and all the other things that are necessary when you are travelling all over.”

Kenny Hunter starred at Mt. St. Joe when he was in high school, so he’s no stranger to the private school game. Interestingly, Hunter won the last MSA crown and the first MIAA crown as he was competing during the transition from MSA to MIAA. Hunter won a MIAA Crown and was a state and National Prep Runner-up.

“The confidence I had in the coaching,” said Hunter about why he was so certain they would excel back in October. “I knew that the kids had a good foundation on their skills. We expect more. So, with those expectations you have to give them proper machinery, proper tooling, so they can be successful.”

Before joining McClain at Dunbar in 2017, Hunter was a roving heavyweight coach in Baltimore City, who would float from team to team dispensing his knowledge. Hunter reflects on what SFA achieved and where he sees them in the future.

“I want to say it was expected,” replied Hunter. “We have goals that we set at the beginning of the year. And the whole point of wrestling and throughout the season is to achieve those goals. We don’t want to shortchange ourselves, but we have to make the goals realistic. That’s why we didn’t say, “we’ll be ranked No. 1 in the state but definitely ranked in the state”. The astonishing thing is we did this without a full team. So, just wait until we get a full team.”

For a perspective on how hard it is to start a new program, we spoke to a former VSN Coach of the Year, John Carroll’s Keith Watson. Watty, as he is known in the wrestling world, left Bel Air to start a program at John Carroll, eventually building them into a state power, even winning a MIAA title over McDonogh when they were still an elite team.

“The main thing is to keep the guys excited and engaged, but also get the parents on board,” Watson said. “We (Doug and I) talked time and time again over the last two years as he thought about the move. He just had to keep doing what he was doing at Dunbar. But, yes, it’s impressive to have that level of success immediately. It was a different talent pool, but it took me a while to build John Carroll up. For him to do it so quickly, regardless of talent pool, was impressive.”

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