VSN’s 2018-19 Wrestlers and Coaches of the Year all made history in their own ways; St. Joe’s Chris Barnabae is our Lower Weight Wrestler of the Year and Centennial’s Jason Kraisser is the pick at Upper Weight; St. Joe’s Harry Barnabae and Owings Mills’ Ryan Mackin are our picks as Co-Coaches of the Year
by Billy Loverocket
This year’s Varsity Sports Network’s Wrestlers and Coaches of the Year were not only the best on the mat in 2018-19, each accomplished feats that were down right historical in the scope of high school wrestling in Maryland.
The winners Chris Barnabae of Mount St. Joseph (Lower Weight), Jason Kraisser of Centennial (Upper Weight), and Co-Coaches of the Year Harry Barnabae of St. Joe (Chris’ dad) and Ryan Mackin of Owings Mills.
Chris Barnabae turned heads in several national events with victories over some wrestlers ranked highly in the national polls. He also won his first state title, the MIAA tournament, his third crown at the War on the Shore, his second crown at Mount Mat Madness and placed third at the National Preps.
Kraisser extended his family’s legacy of wrestling dominance, winning his fourth MPSSAA state title, joining his brother Nathan as one of only eight wrestlers with four Maryland state titles. In addition, another brother, Austin, owns three and their father Cliff has one, for a total of 12 in the family.
Harry Barnabae’s Gaels completed a three-peat of the MIAA A Conference dual meet title, the MIAA Tournament and Maryland Independent State Tournament. At the states they accomplished something that has never been done before, having all 14 wrestlers place third or higher in their respective weight classes. St. Joe also finished third at the National Preps Tournament and earned a No. 20 national ranking.
Mackin and his Eagles snapped Sparrows Point’s streak of 85 consecutive dual meet victories over Baltimore County teams and his team also went on to win the the Baltimore County tournament before qualifying 11 wrestlers, the most of any team, for the state tournament.
Here are their individual stories:
MOUNT ST. JOSEPH HIGH SCHOOL
VARSITY SPORTS NETWORK
2018-19 LOWER WEIGHT
WRESTLER OF THE YEAR
For the first two years of Chris Barnabae’s career he sat in the shadow of two-time world champion Kurt McHenry from St. Paul’s. Everyone knew Barnabae was talented, but he seemed under-appreciated, overlooked if you will. This year, however, he had his chance to truly shine. Barnabae took flight and put forth his best season to date, capturing his first state crown to go with his second MIAA title.
“I felt that everything I had done, all my training and working out, paid off in the end,” Barnabae said. “I felt thrilled to win it (state title).”
The junior dealt with shin splints throughout the season and was just rounding into wrestling shape when he took the mat at the Walsh Ironman in Ohio in early December. He didn’t reach the podium there, falling one-win shy of that distinction, but he did down Antonio Lorenzo (St. John’s Bosco, CA), by fall, 2:25. The win over Lorenzo, who ended the year ranked 18th in the country by FloWrestling, was Barnabae’s notice that he would be a force to deal with this year.
“I did not think that much after Ironman,” Barnabae added. “In my opinion, I did not wrestle my best. Before the match, I did not know who Lorenzo was since I do not look at rankings. I wrestle every match the same.”
The pin over Lorenzo also signified what would be Barnabae’s calling card this season…pins. Lots of pins. He has led the team in pins the last two years, 39 this year and 40 last year, and has already amassed 112 falls in his career.
The Gael pinned Wyoming Seminary’s Lachlan McNeil in the fifth-place bout at the Beast of the East in 52 seconds. McNeil was ranked in the top 10 in the country at the time and finished as the No. 7 wrestler in the nation. The trip to the Beast podium was the third for the St. Joe grappler (8th as a freshman and 6th last year).
“I was excited,” said Barnabae. “We had trained for the Beast all off season and I felt I was prepared.”
Barnabae, who was unranked nationally, picked off then No. 1 Trevor Mastrogiovanni (Blair Academy, NJ), 11-4, in the Beast quarter-finals. Mastrogiovanni is the wrestler who beat McHenry in last year’s National Prep finals. The Buccaneer also beat Barnabae in the 2018 prep semis, 11-5.
Those exploits pushed the Gael into the national rankings where he ended up No. 9 at season’s end.
Barnabae placed third at the National Prep tournament for the second straight year following a runner-up finish as a freshman. He saw McNeil in the semis at preps but could not duplicate the result from the Beast, falling this time 9-7.
Along the way, the pin machine captured his third War on the Shore title and second consecutive Mount Mat Madness crown. In the War on the Shore finals, Barnabae pinned C. Milton Wright’s two-time state champion, James Riveira (No. 2 at 120 in the final state rankings by BillyB’s Wrestling World), in the second-period, 3:30.
“My approach to every match is the same, to constantly look for the fall and be aggressive. No (I did not change my style), it has been the same for the last three years. I look for pins. I had 39 this year, 40 sophomore year, and 33 freshman year.”
He downed St. Paul’s state champion, Wil Guida, 6-1, in a dual meet this year. A season ago, Barnabae used a major-decision, 10-1, to take out Guida. Another notable win this season was in the finals of the Ocean Lakes Invitational in Virginia, where Barnabae encountered Riley Starcher (Grassfield), who would go on to win the Virginia 6A state title, and pitched a shutout, 6-0.
Barnabae, who finished as the state’s top ranked 120lber, defeated No. 3 Shawn Strand (Loyola) for his MIAA and MIS titles, by fall,3:30, and 15-0 respectively. He was so dominant at the end of the season that the 15-0 match with Strand was the only match at the MIAA tournament or states that didn’t end in a fall. He pinned all four adversaries at the MIAA tournament and flattened his four foes leading up to the state finals in 2:02, including two ten-second pins.
All the grand stuff Barnabae accomplished pales in comparison to his team winning their third consecutive MIAA A Conference and state titles, along with finishing as the state’s top ranked team for a third year in a row.
“I feel like we all worked together to win our state title,” Barnabae said. “We wrestled not just for ourselves, but for the team. We have a number of strong leaders on the team. We all play an important role in preparing the team for a match.”
Chris has been coached by his father, Harry (who was one of VSN’s co-coaches of the year this year), since his junior league days. Surprisingly, Chris was only able to snag one junior league state title in five tries. Other accomplishments include a third place showing at the tournament of Champions in Ohio, taking silver at the Northeast regions in Freestyle, and picking up another silver at the Pan Am Trials in Greco-Roman.
He is quickly gaining a reputation as “The guy you don’t want to wrestle.” His brutal and punishing style has taken him up a few notches this year on the national level. The impressive results and high-level performance made the St. Joe star an obvious choice for VSN’s 2019 Lower Weight Wrestler of the Year.
“I feel thrilled. There are a lot of good lightweight wrestlers in the state of Maryland. I feel grateful to be chosen for this award.”
Coach and father, Harry, is amazed how time has flown by since he began coaching Chris in the junior league ranks.
“The past 10 years have been a blur. Coaching Chris, as with all my sons, has been a real pleasure both as a father and a coach, especially, to see him grow and mature into a real competitor. During this timeframe he has also had a great deal of influence from Chris Combs, my right-hand man in the MSJ room. Coach Combs has been with Chris since day one.
“Chris is one of the most aggressive and intense wrestlers that I have had the opportunity coach. He is constantly working for the fall from start to finish. Coupled with his unorthodox style he puts a lot of seasoned wrestlers on their backs and has tallied a lot of pins over the past 3 seasons. He approaches every match with the same mental and physical preparation. He doesn’t follow rankings and rarely will watch film on an opponent. When he says he leaves it all on the mat he truly does. The same discipline is applied to his studies as well, as he plans to wrestle in college. He has had a remarkable career so far, but I don’t believe he will be satisfied until he wins the National Preps. Regardless of how we finish our senior season, I cannot be prouder of him, as a coach, and as his father.”
CENTENNIAL HIGH SCHOOL
VARSITY SPORTS NETWORK
2018-19 UPPER WEIGHT
WRESTLER OF THE YEAR
Unbeknownst to Cliff Kraisser in 1983 when his hand was raised as the victor of his 119lb state finals match, what was perceived to be the end of the story, was actually just the beginning. That state title was the first of what is now 12 for the Kraisser clan.
Legacy tends to be an overused word in sports journalism, but in this case, there is no other way to put it. The Kraisser’s legacy started to grow when Nathan joined the four-time MPSSAA state champion club in 2012. Austin followed a few years later with three titles of his own. Jason stepped on the scene when Austin was a senior and both won state titles. Jason added three more to his tally since to join the prestigious club of four-timers this year. Not to mention oldest brother, Brian, who was a state placer.
When Jason was just a middle-schooler, he watched Austin fall short in his freshman season championship quest. Having Austin on that year’s squad was a nice safety net for Jason. Austin pumped him up and didn’t let doubts settle on Jason’s mind.
“It (Austin losing) made me think,” Kraisser said. “It made me realize high school isn’t easy. High school is hard. It’s going to be a battle. I knew that going in. But also, having Austin on the team that year, it was good. He was never thinking, Jason, you know I lost freshman year, you might too. He was always saying, you’re gonna win this, you got this, he was always pushing me.”
Jason avoided the freshman pitfall and put what is arguably the toughest title (the first as a freshman) in the books. In fact, Kraisser came into the state tournament as the favorite at 132lbs that year with a 36-3 record.
The title run that freshman year was magical. The Eagle used an 8-3 win over Stephen Decatur’s Andy McKahan in the finals. To reach the championship bout, Kraisser rang up two pins and a 10-0 major-decision.
His only three losses occurred at Mount Mat Madness, where he finished sixth.
“It (MMM) taught me a lot,” said Kraisser. “That hard work pays off. I lost to some guys my freshman year, I came back and beat them my sophomore year, and then suffered a loss my sophomore year to a kid I placed higher than in tournaments in the post season. It made me show that if you keep working hard, you’re gonna go places, you’re gonna surpass these people who may be more talented than you, but if you keep working hard it’s all gonna pay off for ya.”
During his sophomore campaign his only hiccup occurred yet again at Mount Mat Madness where Kraisser placed third, dropping a major-decision, 14-2, to Blair Academy’s Malcolm Robinson in the semis.
At MMM, Kraisser was able to avenge one of his losses from his freshman year to Gilman’s Braeden Alevizatos. The Greyhound beat him 8-5 a year before, but Kraisser throttled him in the third-place bout with a 9-0 major-decision. Kraisser would again blank Alevizatos a few weeks later, 2-0, for his second Warpath Invitational title at Franklin High School.
Taking a 36-1 record into the state tournament, Kraisser cruised to the finals with three falls (two in the first period), before having to work a bit harder to secure title No.2, 4-2, against Urbana’s Logan Arneson.
Heading into his junior season with an 80-4 record, Kraisser had his sights set on reaching the top of the MMM podium. The tournament was the breeding ground for the only losses of his high school career so Kraisser was extra motivated.
He had to work hard for it, but in the finals, Kraisser avoided another MMM disappointment and won a tight bout with Haverford’s Chase McCollum, 4-2.
“That was real exciting,” Kraisser added. “In a sense I knew it was tougher competition than states had been for me, because there were people there that were on a higher national caliber. Just being able to win that was also another thing that I could bond with my brothers with, knowing that was another even harder tournament than states had been, and it was a real relief being able to say, “I’ve won the tournament.” It’s not still a goal that‘s out of reach for me.”
Outside of the matches at MMM, Kraisser wasn’t really challenged on the mat during his junior season. His closest bout heading into the state tournament occurred in the region finals with an 11-2 major-decision over South River’s Trenton Puccinelli.
He completed his first undefeated season (39-0) using a 16-3 major-decision in the finals against Josh Stokes (Huntingtown). To reach the championship match, Kraisser tallied three first-period pins.
The senior season was much like the junior one, ending with a 40-0 record, and another MMM title, a fourth Warpath championship, and the fourth state crown.
To capture the MMM title this year, he faced his stiffest test yet since his sophomore season. His finals opponent, Charlie Darracott (Buford, GA), was ranked 18th in the nation by FloWrestling, while Kraisser did not appear in those rankings.
Kraisser, who is now No. 20 in Flo’s latest rankings, did what the Kraissers do, and won that match, 9-5. That performance earned him the Outstanding Wrestler award at MMM-an award Austin won as a senior.
Outside of another close win, 6-3, in early December over Atholton’s 170lb state champ, Sean Billups, the senior cruised to the postseason and again marched to the state final with relative ease picking up three pins. He would square off with Stokes again, and essentially replicate the previous result, working to a major-decision win, 14-3.
“I was just going out saying, hey, this kid, I’ve wrestled him before,” Kraisser continued. “He’s probably going to be gunning for me but I’m just going to go out and wrestle my match. He knew who I was, I knew who he was. I was just gonna go out and battle no matter what happened. As long as I battled, I knew I would come out on top.”
After having time to reflect on joining the four-time state champ club alongside Nathan, Jason had this to say.
“It was great. I was able to complete one of my biggest goals going into high school. I’m a part of something now that not a lot of people can be a part of. It’s something I can bond with my family and my brother about. I knew it was gonna be really, really hard going into high school, but I just remember telling myself, “Hey, it’s possible if I keep working hard. I’ll be able to achieve this goal I had since I was a kid.”
Asked about the nature of the brothers’ relationship. Jason offered that it’s very supportive and about lifting each other up.
“It’s something that honestly is really amazing. A lot of people ask if it’s ever, like competition, or who’s the best? It’s always building us up. My brother did it, so I knew it was possible for me. I knew, he’s only gonna support me through my journey and I knew that if he was there for me then I could do anything.”
The VSN Upper-Weight Wrestler of the year is an award that Jason now shares with Austin who was bestowed the honor in 2016.
“Again, it’s a real camaraderie kinda thing, being able to share an award that my brother got. It also helps tighten the bonds I have with my brother. Having him be able to relate, having an accomplishment that not a lot of people get. It just teaches me, the harder I work, the more things are gonna pay off for me. That if I just keep working hard, things like this, they’ll keep coming as long as I keep me head up, stay humble, and keep working hard.”
Jason has put some impressive accomplishments on his resume over the years. He was a Junior Freestyle All-American at Fargo, UWW Cadet Freestyle 3rd, NHSCA Freshman National Champ, and 5th at FloNationals. As a junior-leaguer with the Warhawks he put three state titles in the trophy case.
The legacy has not been finalized though, as there is another Kraisser, Calvin, toiling away in the junior leagues right now. Jason and Nathan share a prestigious honor, Austin and Jason have won titles together, the family bond is a big part of the Kraisser’s way of life.
Cliff reflected on the legacy and Jason’s time in high school.
“(I’m) very proud of them (Jason and Nathan). Cool accomplishment, it will be nice to see their names together like that now whenever four-timers are listed. I am so fortunate to get a chance to spend two hours a day with my high school aged sons. How many dads get to do that? It’s great that they achieve a lot, but just being able to spend that much time with them and sharing such a big part of their life is really the biggest reward.
“I don’t like to think about it. If someone points it out, then yeah, it’s an honor. (It’s) humbling really. Maybe when all the kids are done wrestling I’ll sit back and think about it. My Dad raised me to try and be humble, which is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”
MOUNT ST. JOSEPH HIGH SCHOOL
VARSITY SPORTS NETWORK
CO-COACH OF THE YEAR
When VSN named Harry Barnabae its coach of the year in 2017, it was because Barnabae won the school’s first state title in seven years and captained the team back to the top of the state rankings after a few years of the Gaels being unranked in the state. In the two seasons since, Barnabae has kept his Gaels at the top, putting two more state titles on his resume.
The consensus coming into the season was Mount St. Joseph was a very good team. They had a stellar showing at the Beast of the East in December that tipped off the potential of this year’s squad. But what happened at the end of the 2018-2019 season is what propelled Barnabae back to coach of the year status, alongside Owings Mills’ Ryan Mackin.
“This is quite an honor considering all the quality coaches we have in the state of Maryland,” Barnabae said. “I would like to congratulate Ryan Makin on his performance with Owings Mills this year. They did a very nice job.
“For us I believe this honor is a reflection of our coaching staff, which includes Chris Combs, Brad Mutchnik, Rick Couch, and Shane Lowman (who works solely with the upper weights), and the work ethic of the team. Those wrestlers are in the room both in-season and out of season constantly working to improve.”
On paper, the margin of victory at the MIAA and MIS tournaments suggest this was likely Barnabae’s best team yet. They won the MIAA title by 89.5 points over rival McDonogh and followed that up with a 108.5-point win over the Eagles at the state tournament.
“These two tournaments are always extremely competitive,” said Barnabae. “We are happy to remain on top, be it by a margin of one point or 100 points. This year’s performance was a total team effort. I believe that many of our teams have been successful over the years. Particularly the 2014 through 2018 seasons. However, I must say that from top to bottom this team was the most accomplished in my eight years as the head coach.”
In running up that impressive victory total, St. Joe also placed all 14 wrestlers third or higher at the state tournament, a feat that is believed to be a first.
“It’s just remarkable,” Barnabae added. “I was informed that this feat had never been accomplished in a Maryland state tournament. This wasn’t one of the team goals, however, I believe it highlights the resilience of our wrestlers battling back to finish in third place. I was very proud of their effort. (Ethan) Stern, (Parker) Warner, (Chris) Roybal, (Clement) Woods and (Joe) Couch all had a great tournament.”
The Gaels weren’t done putting up impressive showings yet though, they saved their finest effort for the National Prep tournament where they finished third and placed ten wrestlers on the podium as All-Americans, including one champion, heavyweight Isaac Righter (No. 8 in the country by FloWrestling).
The third place showing is a step towards getting the program back to its glory days under Neil Adleberg, Allen Smith, and Paul Triplett, when winning National Prep titles was expected. The task is taller these days with No. 1 Blair Academy and their constant recruiting of the nation’s top-ranked kids and Wyoming Seminary following suit as the No. 2 team in the nation.
Those two powers occupy the top two spots in USA Today’s Super 25 final team rankings. The Gaels are back on the national map sitting in the No. 20 spot. They are still being overlooked though, as they finished three spots ahead of No. 5 Lake Highland Prep (FL), at the Beast of the East (4th to their 7th).
“Without question the national recognition has placed us on the radar of numerous college coaches,” Barnabae continued. “With the team’s schedule, which includes the top tournaments in the country, Ironman, Beast, National Preps and Mount Mat Madness, they know our kids are battle tested and prepared for the next level. If you couple this with the education offered at MSJ this becomes very appealing to parents and wrestlers who aspire to attend college.”
Locally, St. Joe finished as the state’s top-ranked team for the third straight year. They won the Mount Mat Madness title for the second year in a row, captured their third consecutive War on the Shore crown, and drove home from the Ocean Lakes Invitational in Virginia as champions.
Barnabae’s squad also three-peated as MIAA Dual Meet champions with a 40-22 win over No. 2 McDonogh in a January meeting. To kick off the season they dominated the King George Duals in Virginia, winning their five matches by a combined score of 363-23, including a 50-22 win over St. Christopher’s (VA), in the finals.
With only four seniors in this year’s lineup the future is bright for the Gaels. With the current run of success, you can bet more of the top guys will be knocking on St. Joe’s door in the future, looking to get in on the action and success.
“This is one of the most rewarding parts of our program,” Barnabae elaborated. “To develop wrestlers and the team to the best of their ability. Eight years ago, we began as an unranked team and rapidly moved up to the top over the past five years.
“This growth can be attributed first and foremost to the effort of the wrestlers working together to be successful. Then you surround this group with the other intangibles, our administration, the athletic directors, (Kraig Loovis and Michele Connor), our trainer (Jon Glover), Neil Adleberg (my former coach and the Director of Mount Mat Madness), and the coaching staff and you truly have a winning team.”
Owings Mills suffered a heartbreaking loss at the King of the Mat Duals at Dundalk in January. In the semifinals they dropped a tough match on criteria to Delaware’s Indian River. They came back to take third with a win over Perry Hall.
Dual meet wins over Baltimore County opponents piled up in the stat book throughout the year, including a 42-30 victory over rival Hereford. The regular season finale was the test they were waiting for, however. The county dual meet title on the line, set to take place at Sparrows Point. The home squad was working on an 85-match win streak over Baltimore County teams so the task at hand would be daunting for any coach, let alone a rookie one.
Mackin won the chess match with the Point’s coach Mike Whisner, that coupled with a few timely upsets and the unthinkable happened in front of the home crowd…the streak was over to the tune of a 37-28 Eagles’ win.
“That was a great match,” Mackin added. “It’s cool to get that one back. I think they’ve done a great job building up, kinda being the team in Baltimore County. That’s what you work hard for. Those types of challenges. You could wrestle that match 20 times and get different results each time. We came out on top that night.
“It was cool. It was great for our guys, great for our seniors to be able to finally get that win. With it being Girch’s last year too, I think that was real cool for him to get that win. He had never beaten them since he started coaching. So, that was a big win for him.”
Mackin didn’t let his team’s success go to their heads and got them refocused for the post-season where they captured their second consecutive 2A North Region Dual Meet crown with a 39-27 over Hereford.
“Hereford, man they just always come to make it a match,” Mackin said. “That was a good night. We did it last year, so I think we surprised ourselves a little bit last year in doing it. This season certainly was a challenge but it’s a place that they had been before, so it was familiar territory for them this time. To go back-to-back, you know, that feels great.”
Unfortunately, they would be paired up with six-time dual meet state champion Damascus in the first round of the 2A state duals again. This year they fell, 42-32, after dropping a 50-18 match last year.
“I think that we set high goals for a reason,” said Mackin. “Because when you’re working harder than anybody, which I don’t know whether we are or not – I’m not in any other room. But I know we go 110% in training. I don’t want to set a goal that is easy to obtain. We wanted to be state champions walking into the season. We lost, Damascus beat us.”
The best was yet to come for Owings Mills though, as they captured the Baltimore County tournament title. The Eagles faced a big deficit as the finals approached. Their six finalists came through with bonus points to propel them to a two-point win.
“That was great,” continued Mackin. “It was one of those wars. You pull the kids in, and those six kids we had in the finals, down 24 points going into the finals. We had six finalists, Sparrows Point had six. We go six-for-six in bonus points and win by two. That was crazy. We had some help obviously from the other teams, but the way that they were able to step up was incredible. You couldn’t really write a better ending to that one.”
Team scores are no longer kept at the individual region tournaments, but if they were, the Eagles would have been declared the victors of the 2A/1A North. They qualified the most wrestlers for the state tournament of any team in the state with 11.
The three state champs they crowned (Alex Dufour, Phil Smith, and Roell Ngounou) at the Show Place Arena were the most of any school in the state as well. Those performances coupled with Diondre Space’s second place finish and Machiavelli Amaya’s sixth put an exclamation mark on the season.
“We wanted to put five or six people in the finals and have three or four state champions,” Mackin reflected. “We had three. I think in hindsight looking back on it, it’s one you can be happy with. I think we caught people by surprise a little bit, but I don’t think we were surprised by it. We knew what we were working with. We knew how hard the kids worked.
“I don’t think you can put in order what makes you proud. There’s just so many times the kids stepped up this year. But, man, seeing some of those kids (Azeez Onigbanjo, Sabastian Gomez), even Abdulaziz Burkhanov, he was one that was in a deep, deep weight class. For them to go, that was something that made me extremely proud. There’s no title attached to it or anything like that, but to see those two as second year wrestlers go to states and knowing where they started from, that was a moment that actually makes me really, really proud looking back at the season.”
Girch feels he can walk away knowing the program is headed where it needs to, and the right guy is leading the way.
“His attention to detail and knowledge of technique is at such a high level that he can change a wrestler’s hand placement and they are able to be successful. He is able to communicate his thoughts and technique in a way that is not confusing and easy for anyone to understand.
“Mackin is a unique person that is hard around the edges and might rub people the wrong way. He doesn’t conform to the norm, as he is always in jeans, a hat, and might look like he just woke up. These are all aspects of his life that he would say gets in the way of the final goal, to be a champion. He is someone that will do anything for someone to help them. He is not only loyal to the Owings Mills team but has spent money on other wrestlers to compete, travel, and even get shoes if they need.”
Girch sees Mackin building special things in the Owings Mills area. He started a program similar to Beat the Streets called Champions That Wrestle. There is a workout aspect to CTW which unfolds at Ground Control, but the bigger side is with tutoring and SAT prep which they are working to have done at the Kumon Learning Center.
“He is one of the best coaches that I have seen when it comes to preparing his team to be great,” Girch said. “Mackin’s goal is to have the entire program from administrator, coaches, wrestlers and parents outwork every other school to become champions in all aspect of their lives. He believes in creating champions in life so much that he co-founded a non-profit called Champions that Wrestle Inc. that seeks to eliminate excuses and barriers to be a champion through Education, Athletics, and Community. The amount that he is willing to do for the wrestling community is simply unmatched.”