Michele and Tony Bentley are on the front edge of their seats about six rows from the floor at the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro.
This is not Saturday night at the movies, but a shot at history, as they watch their son Maximus wrestle for the 138-pound title at the Class 2A-1A state tournament. The Bentleys are nervous from the start. But now, 45 seconds into the match, their stomachs are churning like a barrel of monkeys have been set free to work through a session of Peterson Rolls. For the first time in three weeks of tournament wrestling, Maximus Bentley is losing.
“Oh, God. I was nervous,” Michele says.
“I was worried,” Tony says. “My reaction was, was he going to choke on it. I had flashbacks from years ago.”
Sitting with her grandparents further back, Hannah Bentley is wrestling with her emotions as her younger brother works to figure out an escape route.
“It scares me because he’s on like his final match. And to see that he’s behind?” Hannah says. “What’s going to happen next? Is he going to win? Is he going to get points? You don’t know.”
Seated with assistant Steve Culver in one of the two chairs that make up Bentley’s corner on the mat, Easton head coach Jason Biringer looks to be the calmest of anyone in all of Warrior nation, mostly because he’s watched this before.
“I’ve seen Max a long time,” Biringer says. “I wasn’t overly concerned because one of Max’s greatest gifts as a wrestler is awareness, and knowing where he is on the mat. So I wasn’t too worried.”
But even Biringer confesses.
“I’m not going to lie,” he says. “There was a little twinge of, ‘Oh, no.’”
The Bentleys, Biringer and Culver know wrestling isn’t about guarantees. And no one ever declared Maximus Bentley invincible. He’s lost twice this season. And he’s lost at states. But that was two years ago. He hasn’t lost here since.
And he’s not going to lose on this night.
It’s not that Bentley has come too far. It that he’s gone too far.
He’s wrestled himself into the car too many times. He’s taken that two-hour ride to New Jersey for practice too many Mondays.
He had taken too many beatings — physically and mentally — from a coach who had once been where he is now.
He had fought through frustration too many times, and shed too many tears
He had quite simply invested too much time, energy and sweat to let victory and history get away now.
He just needed a little wake-me-up. And now, 45 seconds into his final high school match, that wakeup call has arrived.
A two-point deficit? That was nothing compared to the scenarios he’d been put in — and managed to get through — in Jersey, a place where he’d been challenged like never before.
As a freshman, Bentley loses in the 106-pound semifinals to eventual state champion Daiquan Anderson of Oakland Mills, but wrestles back to place third, capping a 44-3 season.
The following year, he loses a 4-2 decision to Catoctin’s Zach Bryant in the semifinals. Bryant goes on to win the 113-pound state title. Heartbroken that his state-title dreams had been vanquished, Bentley struggles in the wrestle-backs and finishes sixth.
He recovers from what was initially thought to be a season-ending knee injury his junior year to become just the third state champion in Easton history, rallying for a 5-4 victory over Winters Mill’s Zach Kirby in the 126-pound title match.
Wrestling in college is in Bentley’s future, but his father knows if his son is to take his talents to another level he will need stronger competition during the offseason. Tony Bentley talks with a long time friend, who suggests a trip to New Jersey for a look at the Rhino Wrestling Club.
“He kept telling me, ‘You’ve got to come up here. It’s going to make your son a lot better,’” Tony Bentley says of his friend. “But I was like, an hour and a half to two-hour drive, depending on traffic?’
The Bentleys make the drive to Jersey’s Collingswood High to watch and take part in a Rhino practice.
“Man, these kids from New Jersey, when they knew Max was a stranger from Maryland, they went out there and tried to take his head off,” Tony Bentley says. “Max had to earn respect up there. Before you know it, he’s up there wrestling and that’s where he met Mark.”
Mark Grey was a four-time national prep and Beast of the East champion while at New Jersey’s Blair Academy, long considered one of the country’s top wrestling programs. A three-time Fargo champion, Grey goes on to wrestle at Cornell and qualifies for the NCAAs three times.
But now he’s a coach, teaching principles like pace, angles, levels, hand fighting and never, ever giving up. He teaches these things and more. And he teaches them hard.
“The biggest thing I said going into it is, ‘Don’t let yourself quit,’” Grey says. “That’s the biggest thing. You’ve got to be able to keep going. Obviously he’s not going to be wrestling anyone my caliber in terms of the experience. But being able to go with me and being pushed by me enables him … it brings his level up and he doesn’t even realize it because he’s not even thinking about it trying to score. When he gets a guy like in high school, or someone around his size he’s going to be able to blow through them. So I just kept always telling him to stay positive. It wasn’t anything personal.”
But this is a realm of toughness Bentley has never experienced before.
The Bentleys and Grey chat and reach an agreement. Through late summer and fall, the Bentleys drive to Collingswood twice a week. Max works out with Grey one-on-one for an hour, changes out of his sweat-soaked workout clothes, puts a fresh set on, then goes full bore for club practice that runs between 90 minutes to two hours.
Once the high school season starts the trips north are limited to two hours of personal training with Grey on Mondays, although there are times another partner is brought in. But it’s not any easier.
“My approach to it was when he went to practice where he was going to (school), it wasn’t like he was getting an easy practice,” Grey says. “He had to push himself, like kind of by himself. Whereas when we went (at it), I was kind of like, ‘Just focus on what I’m telling you and that’s all, and we’ll go hard.’”
And they did.
“For the first hour we would work on technique,” Max Bentley says. “Then the last hour he would just beat me up mentally and physically. Like sometimes I felt like I would want to cry. That’s how much he would beat me up.”
The standard high school wrestling match is three two-minute periods, unless shortened by pin, technical fall, or injury default, or extended into overtime. Grey and Bentley work through seven grueling 10-minute periods every Monday. Different aspects are at times broken down and worked on. But largely Grey works Bentley at a fast pace, incorporating different pieces of instruction.
“The main thing I was trying to get him to do was get to his angles,” Grey says. “He was very fast, but everything was kind of straight on. The more experienced and better wrestlers, they’ll be able to sprawl, down block, defend their legs and everything straight on. So I got him to circle to get to the angles more, kind of incorporate putting multiple attempts together.
“That was kind of my biggest thing,” Grey continues. “If you’re trying to attack someone two, three times in a row eventually you’re going to get to it. And that all comes full circle with being able to wrestle that pace for six minutes. That’s what brings it all together, going super hard for those 10-minute goes. That enables you to put your pace together, where you’re getting to your angles. You’re not worrying about your legs. You’re not worrying about how tired you are. All you care about is trying to get to the legs, trying to get to the next score. That’s really the biggest thing.”
But that wasn’t all.
“Every practice I always incorporated three attacks, defending our legs,” Grey says. “And the big thing was hand fighting, too. Trying to get your head position so when a guy is trying to score on you, you’re able to block him with his head. He’s obviously not even going to touch your legs. Really getting him to use his head and his hands together, and as a result he’s fielding those shots and then getting to those corners.
“I helped him on bottom a little bit just defending legs,” Grey continues. “We kind of just focused on high pace and mostly feet. If he had trouble in a (recent) match, where ‘I got stuck on bottom in this situation,’ we would hammer that right away for about 10 to 15 minutes and then it was kind of back to sparring and going live.”
Monday after Monday, Grey surrenders nothing. And week after week, Bentley wrestles against his coach and a building frustration that at times leaves him on the verge of tears.
“What kid my age wants to drive two hours to New Jersey, and just know like ... you’re going to cry?’” Bentley asks rhetorically. “You’re going to get your butt kicked for the whole two hours. But I had to think, ‘This is what I have to do to get better. I have to step out of my comfort zone.’
“Most of the time the tears were just like anger because I couldn’t do anything,” Bentley says. “Coming down to Maryland, I was beating guys up. But when I wrestled him he’d beat the crap out of me. It was so frustrating. Like, I can’t do anything. I was trying my hardest. I’ll be maybe close to a takedown and he’ll just do something (to deny it). It was so frustrating.”
And while Bentley gets frustrated at times, he never quits. Week after week he comes back for another round of frustration. He may be too tired to recognize it, but week after week that frustration masks another round of improvement.
“(I) try to challenge him mentally, get him tired,” Grey says. “And then get him to the point where he’s got to focus and really stay disciplined when you’re tired, because you’re going to get there in matches. Especially in the best matches. And you’re going to have to pull through and find a way to win, or find a way to get a takedown or an escape or a turn. So really I was just trying to get him to push that barrier, that wall back and keep building on himself mentally.
“If you are having to go 10 minutes straight, a six-minute match you’ll fly through and be able to push the pace hard,” Grey continues. “And that’s what we kind of pushed the whole couple of months we were training. He always fought through and I think it definitely helped him.”
And it definitely shows.
Technically sound throughout his high school career, Bentley’s also more aggressive, especially during the conference, regional and state tournaments. His relentless hand fighting has become a science in misdirection as opponents duck and defend head taps and shoulder slaps, only to have Bentley shooting on their legs for a takedown.
“His hand fighting especially increased exponentially his senior year,” Biringer says. “And that was the last transition because he was never a really physical wrestler in ninth through 11th. He was a technical kid and had a motor and would keep going. But he didn’t have that edge that you want to see. He cranked it up senior year. And a lot of that goes back to being one on one with Grey. The brutal element of imposing your will on the other guy, that really came into play this year.”
The Cordova native is also tougher mentally, bouncing back from losses at the War on the Shore and Paint Branch Invitational tournaments.
“I saw the work he put in, and how he came back from his loss against the kid (Eddie Hummel) he wrestled from Southern (Regional High in New Jersey in the War on the Shore semifinals), and then how he came back from that other loss,” Grey says. “He just stayed positive and just kept working. And as a coach that’s what you kind of look for in an athlete. Someone who will just put their head down and go to work every day and just keep trying to get better. And I was very happy and pleased that he was able to get that done. And I told him to enjoy it and relish it and move on because you’ve got bigger goals you’ve got to accomplish.”
One of those goals was to become the first two-time state champion in Easton High history. But first Bentley needs to cut some weight.
Making weight can be a constant battle for a wrestler, especially when considering the tempting Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner spreads they face early in the season.
Making weight has never been a problem for Bentley. But the Wednesday prior to states he decides to shed a load of stress he’s carried through the season — where to go to school.
“Probably the toughest decision of my life so far,” Bentley says.
He visits Bloomsburg, Ursinus and Muhlenburg — all strong programs in Pennsylvania — and speaks with coaches at the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel and Pittsburgh. And he may have attracted attention from other schools had he waited until after states and the Pittsburgh Wrestling Classic (which is eventually canceled due to the coronavirus).
But two days before the state tournament, Bentley makes his decision to sign a national letter of intent with the University of Maryland.
“I loved the campus when I visited,” Bentley says. “I love the coaches. It felt like home when I went there. I went to all these different colleges, and I loved the campuses, but it didn’t feel like home. And that one, it really stood out for me. And obviously it’s in the Big Ten so it’s going to be tougher. I always like the competition.
“I really liked Maryland. They texted me, telling me ‘We want you,” Bentley continues. “I’m really glad I did it because all the stress on me about colleges and stuff, it really took the pressure off. I can go into states not having to win.”
But Bentley wants to win states. And now, 45 seconds into his last high school match wearing an Easton singlet, he readies to make his stamp on the school record book for a third consecutive weekend.
The longest six minutes
Bentley makes history when he becomes the school’s first four-time Bayside Conference and Class 2A-1A East Region champion on successive weekends in February. And he looks stoked to extend that historic run on the first day at states, logging pinfalls in 49 and 38 seconds, respectively, in the first two rounds.
He suffers a bloody nose in Saturday’s semifinal against Overlea’s Jerome Vonziah, but after a scoreless first period, combines an escape and takedown for a 3-0 lead before earning a pinfall with 4 seconds left in the period.
His opponent in the finals is Fairmont Heights’ Jason Fernandors, who is athletic, explosive, and has lost just once in 44 matches. He’s not who Bentley’s been wrestling on Mondays since the beginning of the season, but his 2-0 first-period lead in the championship has the Warrior faithful a touch uncomfortable.
But Bentley’s been in the situation before.
“In practices, Mark would put me in situations where I’d be down by five, or I’d be down by four, or different scenarios that I was already used to being down,” Bentley says. “Training with Mark, being down two to him, and then being down two in the state finals … There was no way I was going to lose.”
An escape with 48 seconds left in the opening period reduces Bentley’s deficit to one. Sixteen seconds into the second period the Easton senior escapes off bottom, forging a 2-2 tie.
But something’s missing. Bentley’s not attacking like he has the past three weekends. And he’s not hand fighting, bringing Culver to his feet for a strong plea of, “Come on Max!”
The defending champ is also struggling to find any type of rhythm that will allow him to piece two or three moves together, because the cotton ball stuffed up his left nostril is failing to stem the annoying flow of blood that results in a number of blood times being called by the official. Afterward, he’ll admit he may have been feeling the pressure of trying to make history once again.
But Bentley isn’t breathing heavy. There’s no trace of panic in his face. He’s not as aggressive, but with 28 seconds left in the second period, Bentley strikes, turning a deep double-leg shot into a single-leg takedown for a 4-2 lead. He controls the remaining time in the second, then wrestles a smart, defensive final two minutes sealing another historic victory to complete a 34-2 season.
Back on his feet, Bentley hurries over to bearhug Biringer, and returns to the center of the mat to get his arm raised. The cotton finally damming his bloody nose, he spreads his arms in celebration and turns to acknowledge Easton’s cheering section before sprinting and leaping into Culver’s arms. He collects his headgear and heads toward the stands to embrace his parents and friends, then reflects on his final match and what got him there.
“Obviously I thought, ‘Why am I going all the way up to Jersey?’” says Bentley, who finishes with a 135-10 career record and almost two months later learns he is only one of four wrestlers in Maryland selected as an All-American honorable mention. “Now, I’m like so glad my Dad pushed me to step out of my comfort zone. All the tears and like blood and the sweat … it’s all worth it.”