With only four weeks left until the district championship meets, the Northern Regions top wrestling stars are jockeying for position in hopes of capturing a medal signifying they are the best grappler in the region.
In the Liberty District, there are two tried and true programs and one upstart that are trying to lay claim to that title.
"I think Langley, Lee and Fairfax are some of the top teams," said Andrew Maoury, the eighth-year head coach at Madison. "But I think we'll be up there too."
Most wouldn't be surprised that the Saxons and Rebels head the list — but Lee?
Credit that to the decision of fourth-year Lancer head coach Joe Radun to remain in Springfield after accepting the more high-profile job at Centreville.
"It was terrible how they handled that thing," said Maoury, who said he wasn't surprised when Radun decided to stay. "[Centreville] posted that thing in April and they kept everybody waiting and were dragging their feet until the season was about to start. I don't know if it was the principal or the AD [at Centreville] who was doing it, but that was bad."
The Wildcats' loss was the Lancers' gain, and now Radun seems to be closing the gap on the rest of the district.
Two Lancers who will be aiming for an individual Liberty championship are Neil Thompson in the 130-pound division and Peter Rushin at the 160 pound class. Incidentally, Rushin's elder brother Blake was one of Radun's top grapplers at the school off of Franconia Road.
The road to a district title may be much easier for Thompson — who if he is successful will be the second Lee Lancer to own the title in as many years, Jeovany Torres won it in 2002. Thompson could also claim his second district title after winning the gold at the 119-pound class last season.
Rushin, who finished fourth last year in his current weight class in the district, will have to battle Fairfax's Nick Scabilia in addition to the top two finishers in the district last year, champion John Gryczewski of Marshall and runner-up Steven Archibald of Langley.
THIS YEAR, the Saxons are led again by some of the top performers from last year's district champion team. In addition to Archibald, Langley great grappling group includes Eric Armaken at 140, Steven Leitao at 125 and regional heavyweight hopeful Jonathan Shafran.
"It feels great," said Shafran, on his team's reputation around the league. "We've filled some [vacant] spots from last year, and we have a lot of returning seniors. So I think we'll be pretty strong."
The Lancers may provide competition for Madison in the district, but the WarHawks' Maoury said his squad appears to be solid from top to bottom throughout their roster. He feels that Madison, along with Robinson, Herndon and Hayfield, have a shot for the 2003 Northern Region crown to be held at Robinson Secondary School on the 20th of February.
In the Patriot, in seems that it is always a forgone conclusion that either the Hawks or the Rams will take the title, but three Lake Braddock wrestlers are primed to make noise on the individual level. And one Bruin star has a name that demands recognition.
Matt Vucci will in all likelihood have to battle Washington-Lee star Alberth Cabrera for the 119 pound regional title. And just that contest may be worth the price of admission, since Matt's elder brother Daniel was a star grappler at the Burke secondary school for years.
W-L's Cabrera in his latest meet recently pinned a Wakefield Warrior in less than two minutes.
Lake Braddock's Brent Hess will battle Lee's Thompson at 130 and two-sport Bruins star Dan Griffin is the front-runner at the 145-pound division.
Even wrestler's who aren't in the 145-pound weight class know of the stiff competition. McLean's 112-pound star, Jordan Johnson who was named MVP of a recent tournament spoke highly of the division.
"That  class looks pretty tough with [Lake Braddock's] Griffin, [Fairfax's Joe] Fitterer and that guy from Hayfield [John Villanueva]," said the Highlander senior.
But McLean's Johnson may have to turn his concentration on another Hayfield Hawk — Chris Bowling — if he hopes to take the regional crown in the second lightest grouping in state wrestling.
As for the Fairfax Rebels who won the Liberty District title two years ago but have failed to wrestle the crown away from Langley the past two years, big things are expected from 152-pounder Jeff Kreisel.
Sandwiched between the Rebels other two top hopefuls in weight class [Fitterer at 145 and Scabilia 152], Kreisel will attempt to be the first Fairfax grappler to win a district title since Chris Ward three years ago. But the Rebel star will be tested in his district by the likes of Madison's Kelly Ginley and in the region by Hayfield's Andrew Robarge and reigning regional champion Ahmnon Barnett of West Potomac.
AT WEST Springfield, 11th-year head coach Gary Embrey has two wrestlers that he is looking forward to having stellar seasons — seniors David Gitlin at 125 pounds and Mike Watson in the heavyweight class.
"Mike is doing exceptionally well," said Embrey who has a quarter-century coaching high school wrestling. Embrey is a graduate of Edison and a head coach at that school for 14 years. He said that because of a possible position at West Point Watson, a star on the Spartans football squad, wants to keep his weight up and will wrestle in the heaviest class designated by the VHSL.
"Mike wrestled his first two years at 189 and last year wrestled at 215. And since he wanted to keep his weight up [for football] he wanted to wrestle at heavyweight, and I said O.K."
As for Gitlin, Embrey's other star, the coach had nothing but accolades for his long-time grappler.
"Ever since he was a freshman, he has had a lot of success," said the head Spartan. "As a freshman, he was sixth in the region. As a sophomore, he was sixth in the state. And last year he was fifth in the state."
Embrey said that with T.C. Williams' Branden Beasley, the second best 125 pounder in Virginia last year, Gitlin gets his toughest competition in the Patriot District.