South Carroll coach Jay Braunstein doesn’t mince words regarding the Cavaliers’ chances of capturing this weekend’s prestigious Musselman Duals Tournament in Inwood, West Virginia.

“We’re going in strong, and if we don’t win it, I’ll be surprised,” Braunstein said. “This is a good Maryland public school team, and one of the most cohesive team’s I’ve been involved with in a long time.”

Returning for the fourth-ranked Cavaliers are senior two-time Class 2A-1A state champions Gage Owen (138), Mike Pizzuto (145) and A.J. Rodriguez (170), senior state runner-up Rylan Moose (182), and sophomore fourth-place state finisher Evan Owen (120) from a Carroll County Tournament champion that earned the program’s first-ever Class 2A state dual meet tournament crown.

Not only are Owen, Pizzuto, Rodriguez and Moose two-time returning county tournament champions, but they’re joined by the freshman duo of Joseph Gigliotti (126) and Anthony Rodriguez (152). Gigliotti is a four-time junior league state champion, and Anthony Rodriguez, a one-state champion and three-time finalist.

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South Carroll senior Mike Pizzuto's (right) secured last year's 126-pound Class 2A-1A state championship victory over Glenelg junior Kyle Hansberger (left). Pizzuto's 2-0 victory completed a 40-0 season for his second state title. (Photo courtesy of Dalin Rodriguez)

“A lot of people know that we have four returning state finalists and three state champs, but they don’t necessarily know about any of the rest of us,” Gigliotti said. “I’m training with Mike Pizzuto, and I’m not really going to see many people in an actual match who are as good as he is.”

Pizzuto is a University of Maryland-bound wrestler who went 40-0 last season and who is 102-0 for his career.

“The intensity in the room has been more than it was last year. We’re working to get back to states to defend our dual meet and individual championships,” Pizzuto said. “Most of the time when we compete, the kids in our own room are better than our competition. That’s a big help, pushing us to win, and we’re having fun while we’re doing it.”

The Cavaliers are 3-0 following last week’s victories over Middletown (42-30), Urbana (48-30) and Walkerville (72-6). Gigilotti, Moose and Gage Owen pinned all three opponents, Pizzuto, A.J. Rodriguez and Evan Owen went 3-0 with two pins, and sophomore Manny Rodriguez (195) won all three bouts by decision.

South Carroll senior A.J. Rodriguez celebrates last year's 160-pound Class 2A-1A state championship victory over senior two-time state champion Noah Reho (right) of Stephen Decatur after securing a takedown in the final five seconds for a 3-1 victory. Rodriguez earned his second state title.

Anthony Rodriguez was 2-1 with two pins, sophomore Angelo Marchaney (132), 2-1 with one fall, and sophomore Isabella Garrity (113) had a pin for the Cavaliers, who have spent the past several days priming themselves for Saturday’s the 24-team event at Musselman High.

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“We had no matches this week,” Braunstein said. “So we’re going to grind it out, get our lungs up and work on our technique.”

Braunstein is a first-year head coach of the Cavaliers after assisting Matt Thomas, who stepped down to devote more time to his family.

A former head coach at St. Paul’s of Baltimore as well as an assistant at his alma mater, Mount St. Joseph of Baltimore, Braunstein assisted Old Mill coach Mike Hampe for a total of seven state championships from 1989-through-1998. In that time, the Patriots earned Class 4A-3A tournament crowns in ‘89, ‘90, ‘91, ‘92, ‘93 and ‘95, and a 4A-3A state dual meet championship in ‘98.

Bryan Hamper coached the Cavaliers to Class 2A-1A state tournament titles in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 before the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association ceased scoring the state tournament in 2018.

A 2001 graduate of South Carroll, Hamper was twice a state champion and twice a fourth-place finisher at states, going 32-1 as a junior to earn Carroll County Wrestler Of The Year honors. In 2000, Hamper decked six opponents over his final nine matches of the season, including three falls and a technical fall on the way to winning his first Class 4A-3A state title.

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South Carroll senior Gage Owen scored a fall in 3:03 over 132-pound rival Ricky Figueroa of Chesapeake-Baltimore County to earn his second Class 2A-1A state championship and to finish at 38-0. (Photo courtesy of Dalin Rodriguez)

“This year South Carroll is one of the most talented returning teams I’ve ever seen in the state of Maryland,” Hamper said. “To return four state finalists, three of which have won states each year they have competed for that title is remarkable.”

Pizzuto, A.J. Rodriguez and Gage Owen won their second county titles in 2021, even as Covid 19 denied Maryland wrestlers their season-ending state tournament. But the Cavaliers were at full force once again last season, winning their county tournament as well as the Class 1A state dual meet title.

“Covid robbed the three of them in their sophomore year,” Hamper said. “Otherwise we would absolutely be talking about three athletes in a senior class all going for their fourth state titles.”

The Cavaliers will test themselves this season against private school powers, playing host to No. 2 Gilman on Jan. 17, and No. 1 Mount St. Joseph on Feb. 2.

“There’s a belief out there that a great public school can never beat a private school,” said Gage Owen, an American University-bound wrestler. “But if we continue to do all of the right things and we properly train, we should be able to beat any of those teams. We have the potential to be the best team in South Carroll history.”

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A.J. Rodriguez, Pizzuto and Gage Owen made their marks as freshman, winning their initial crowns in dramatic fashion.

First up was the 106-pound Pizzuto, whose overtime, 3-1, victory over Mountain Ridge senior Jesse Fresh dethroned a defending state champion and completed a 50-0 season. Pizzuto’s triumph avenged a 2019 state championship loss by former teammate Ryan Athey, whom Fresh defeated, 1-0, in their 106-pound title bout.

Gage Owen followed with an 8-6 victory at 120 pounds over Stephen Dectur’s three-time state finalist, Jagger Clapsadle. Owen avenged an earlier, 17-2 loss to Clapsadle to finish the year with a record of 47-3.

AJ Rodriguez won his 126-pound state title, 4-3, over Williamport’s favored Landon Harbaugh, who entered at 49-1. Rodriquez had finished third at the previous weekend’s regionals after losing his semifinal bout, 3-1, to Southern-Garrett’s Brogan Kealey.

Harbaugh won the regional title, 12-4, over Kealey, whom Rodriguez overcame, 8-2, in the state semifinals. Rodriguez went 50-2 as a ninth-grader, his other loss coming via 8-3 decision to three-time state champion James Rivera of C. Milton Wright.

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“Watching my brother win states has been a motivator,” said Anthony Rodriguez. “There’s a lot of pressure not to let my family down, but everyone on the team is family. That’s how strong our bond is.”

Last year, Pizzuto earned his second state title and 40th victory without loss, 2-0, over Glenelg junior Kyle Hansberger at 126 pounds.

Gage Owen then pinned 132-pound rival, Ricky Figueroa, of Chesapeake-Baltimore County in 3:03 for his second state crown. Owen finished at 38-0 and is 94-3 for his career.

A.J. Rodriguez secured his second title, 3-1, over Stephen Decatur’s previously unbeaten two-time champion, Noah Reho, who entered their 160-pound bout at 40-0. Reho had dropped from 170 pounds to face Rodriguez, who broke a 1-1 tie by securing the bout-winning takedown with five seconds left in the match.

“With about 20 seconds left, I took a shot, got him in a cradle and snuck round. I looked up with about five seconds left and saw the referee signaling two points for the win against a two-time state champion and a Division I committed wrestler who came down into my weight,” Rodriguez said.

“I had wrestled 160 all year, but then I found out during the last part of the year that Reho was dropping to 160. Everyone thought Reho was going to win, and even though Reho was much bigger than me, I had no thoughts of trying to avoid him. I knew I was set on staying right there.”

Moose was denied a state title by 170-pound rival Darby Bryant of Williamsport, whose 5-2 victory completed a 41-0 season.

“I lost to a great wrestler last year, but this year I’m once again in a room with some other guys who are great competition, and all four of us who were finalists are team captains,” said Moose, who was 35-4 last season. “We’re 3-0 with some new and talented wrestlers on the team and we’re going to be on fire for the entire season. As for me, my whole season’s in front of me, and I’m going to win states this year.”