Alfred "Baby J" Bannister keeps the mood of Maryland wrestling light during practice, always the one to laugh at his own jokes and get his teammates fired up. But it's all business once he's on the mat — confident, quick on his feet and determined to get the win.
"Once he makes up his mind one way or the other," coach Kerry McCoy said, "he's pretty hard to stop."
Bannister has been especially unstoppable as of late. The 149-pounder has won seven of his past eight matches, including four in a row. His one loss in the recent stretch was against No. 1-ranked Zain Retherford of Penn State on Jan. 21.
Bannister's surge has pushed him to the No. 18 rankings in his weight class.
"I know that, when it comes down to it, I'm going to have to beat the best guys in the country to reach my goals," Bannister said. "So no matter who I'm wrestling or who is across from me during these dual meets or matches or tournaments or anything, I know if I don't beat them now I'm going to have to beat them eventually, so I need to give my all and get ahead now."
Last season, Bannister placed sixth at the Big Ten Championships to qualify for the NCAAs as a 13 seed, where he lost in the wrestle backs round.
However, the La Plata native hasn't always had his hand raised by referees at the end of matches so frequently. He struggled earlier this season and teammate Adam Whitsell started in the 149 weight class for many matches.
"I feel like he's back in some sense. … Earlier in the year, I didn't really see the Baby J I knew, the way I knew he could wrestle. But these past couple matches I've been seeing him wrestle the way I've seen him wrestle in past years," heavyweight Youssif Hemida said. "So that's exciting to see him progress, especially at the right time."
Bannister said McCoy helped him hone his focus to turn the season around. McCoy has him do extra workouts and match preparation, and he gives him motivational talks about what he needs to do to be successful.
Both agree the key to his game is agility.
"I need to be light on my feet. I need to be able to strike fast and quick, you know, especially me being a smaller guy in my weight class," Bannister, who stands at 5'4, said. "I think I'm a top kid in the country on my feet, so that's where I shine."
Bannister hopes to carry his strong finish into the Big Ten Championships and beyond.
"He's going to be Baby J no matter what," McCoy said. "He's just going to keep his focus going and have a good time."