Down a narrow staircase, tucked inside a sweltering hot gym at Lackawanna High School, Abdulgawi Mohamed chases perfection. He's facing heavier, more powerful teammates every day, constantly trying to harness his rare quickness into a weapon.
In an orange, long-sleeve shirt, the senior drips with sweat. Across the room, Steelers coach Jeff Michel nods in his direction.
"His drive is amazing," Michel said. "He's got the work ethic that pushes him where he wants to go."
Well, there's only one place to go from here perfection.
Last year, Mohamed won states, and then nationals, at 103-pounds. After losing a quirky match early in the season, he rebounded to rattle off a numbing 45 straight wins. This year, as the only defending state champion in Section VI, he wants more. The bar is set at an undefeated season and -- why not? -- 100 straight wins. With enough matches, Michel believes he could reach triple digits.
Not bad for someone who's been in the country for only five years. Since coming over from Yemin, Mohamed has lived the American dream on the mat.
"You have to go in there," Mohamed said, "and work your opponent for six minutes. Just work him and work him."
Mohamed's rise began as a freshman, just a year after picking up the sport. Instantly, he advanced to the sectional semifinal where he faced a dilemma. In the Muslim religion, Michel says, it's illegal for a boy to wrestle a girl. So Mohamed bowed out.
He kept improving, kept staying after practice with coaches, reached the sectional finals at 96 pounds as a sophomore and then ran the table last year, culminating with a NHSCA junior title in Virginia.
The turning point came in his lone defeat. Mohamed relies on an unorthodox, "funk" wrestling style. His body twisting in all directions, he'll combat opponents on his feet or on his knees. In the Tonawanda Tournament last year, it cost him his lone blemish.
"He pinned himself," Michel said. "He had a kid in a move and as he went to roll the kid through, he stayed on his back and didn't realize it. Otherwise, he'd be 49-0. That was a big motivator because it happened so early in the season."
The mere mention of that loss, the one thorn in a dominating season, makes Mohamed shake his head.
"I was mad," he said. "I learned that move from my friend so I tried to do it on the mat. After that loss, I kept thinking in my head, I had to step up."
He hasn't lost since.
Michel says there's a direct tie between the Muslim community and wrestling at Lackawanna. Two years ago, 80 percent of his team was Muslim.
"One year, someone came over and ended up being a two-time state champ," Michel said. "So when anybody came over here, they'd all go out for wrestling. It's kind of become a tradition now. If you come over to the states, you wrestle."
In the top five percent of his class, Mohamed is eyeing the University of Buffalo as his college choice. The welcoming atmosphere in the states stood out immediately. He's loving every minute of his new life for one, simple reason.
"Freedom," he says. "The freedom. It's a great country."
And now, in the 112-pound class, there's a realistic chance Mohamed could finish his high school career with 100 wins in a row.
"You figure sooner or later, you're just going to have a bad night," Michel said. "But with him, even when he's down, he just picks it up and works harder."
Lancaster returns top trio
Maybe he's playing coy, but Ron Lorenz is tempering his enthusiasm for his Lancaster team. Two wins into the season, he's not thrilled.
Don't the defending ECIC Division I champs return three of the best wrestlers in the area?
"I don't like too much about my team so far," he said. "We're really young and struggling a little bit right now. Hopefully by the end of the season we'll get the ship righted here and get on our way."
Outside of Steve Michel, Tim Schaefer and Eric Lewandowski, the Redskins are green across the board. Michel (96) and Schaefer (112) both won sectional titles last season, while Lewandowski (96) took second at states after clawing into the bracket as a wild card.
All three have been wrestling since they were 6 years old. And Schaefer, now wrestling at 130 pounds, has never lost in Section VI competition. For a team that's extremely young from 145 pounds up, this is a place to start.
"They're our foundation," Lorenz said. "We're building around those three guys. We're OK. We're not the team that we used to be, but we're getting there."
NFL looking strong
Last year, Niagara-Wheatfield was named Western New York's "Team of the Decade" in Division I. The definition of a wrestling program, the school mass-produces talent. But this winter, coach Rick Sweney says the Niagara Frontier League is as tough as its ever been.
Already, his team has lost to Niagara Falls. And Niagara Falls lost to Kenmore West. So maybe this year's crown is up for grabs.
"Everybody is tough this year," Sweney said. "If one guy gets an injury or one guy becomes ineligible, anything can happen."
Niagara-Wheatfield, which has won the NFL six years in a row and five straight Section VI Division I titles, lost six starters. Leading the team this year are Max Antone (285), Adam Donner (215), Jake Kelly (189) and Joey Malvestuto (130). Antone may compete at 285, but he weighs only 220.
"He has really good agility," Sweney said. "For a big kid he can duck and squeeze and move like a cat."
The 37th annual Joe Shifflet Tournament is set for Dec. 28-29 at Sweet Home featuring 14 schools from Section VI and Section V.
"Some of the top area kids will be there," Sweet Home coach Henry Fumerelle said. "This is a great tournament. We really put on a super venue and dress it up as nice as we can."
Several defending sectional champs will highlight the event, including Jimmy Kloc (Iroquois), Pat Mix (Lake Shore), Irvin Buck (Niagara Falls), Pat Langworthy (Southwestern) and John Mistretta (Southwestern).