Second-year Ashland University head wrestling coach Josh Hutchens has tempered expectations surrounding his Eagles for the 2014-15 season.
For the most part, anyway.
The Eagles, ranked 17th in the country and sixth in the region, will go into this new season without a pair of senior All-Americas, Bryson Hall (184 pounds) and Joe Brandt (197), both of whom are redshirting. The new catchphrase in sports is, "next man up," and not having Hall and Brandt will allow for younger grapplers to step up and be counted this season.
"The expectations are, on paper, a little less than last year," said Hutchens. "We are redshirting two of our All-Americans. We are looking at being in the Top 25 as a reasonable expectation. I'd like to get three or four (national) qualifiers, and at least two All-Americans."
The one place where expectations can't get any higher is at 133 pounds, where junior Michael Labry is a legitimate national championship contender. Labry, 66-7 so far as an Eagle, is ranked first in the region and second in the nation at 133.
"The expectation is for him to win it this year," Hutchens said. "Everybody left the national championship knowing he could have won it. When you get to nationals, there's usually three or four guys with the potential to win it. He doesn't have a lot of weaknesses, but we work on those. He should be better this year than last year."
At 149 pounds, sophomore Brent Fickel was 28-9 with 14 pins a year ago. He is ranked first in the region and sixth in the country.
"Obviously, he's another guy we think could be a placer this year," said Hutchens. "He works hard all the time to correct a few things that cost him at nationals. He's got some things that he does really well and are hard to stop."
Sophomore Kyle Burns is ranked first in the region at 157 pounds following a 19-12 record last season, but, at least to start the season, he will be at 165 pounds. And junior Zeb Beam (11-12 in 2013-14) will flip with Burns and start at 157, although they both could go back to their 2013-14 weights at some point this season.
Freshman Sebastian Vidika, a local product from Black River High School, will get the nod at 125 pounds after winning the Ohio 106-pound state title in Division III in 2014.
"He's a state champ. We expect him to compete," Hutchens said. "He's got a lot of strength, but a lot of stuff to work on. But he's got the most important thing – he's got the fight in him."
Last year's starter at 125, junior Johnny Maurice (6-8), is injured and not cleared for action as of yet.
"Any four of those guys could be starters," Hutchens said. "It's kind of wide-open competition right now."
At 174, sophomore Luke Cramer returns after a solid 15-12 freshman campaign.
"He was solid for us all year," said Hutchens. "He had a tough regional tournament. He's tough. He's definitely one of those guys we think could qualify for the national tournament."
With Hall and Brandt not wrestling this season, opportunities now come for a pair of local grapplers – junior Northwestern High School grad Kurt Schaefer (3-3) and sophomore Clear Fork product Brandon O'Neill (9-2). The "winner" of the competition between the two will be at 184 pounds, with the other moving up to 197.
Yet another familiar local wrestler, sophomore Mapleton product Tyler Shank (3-7), will be at 285 pounds. Shank is looking to fill the shoes of departed pins leader and national qualifier Tyler Houska.
"He didn't get in the lineup much. He got a lot of experience with Houska in the room," Hutchens said. "He's building into his frame, and that helps a lot. The expectations are unknown right now."
Ashland opens the new season Saturday (Nov. 8) at the Mercyhurst Open. The Eagles' first home action will be Saturday, Nov. 22 in the Simonson Open, which will feature Ohio State, other Division I programs and defending Division II national champion Notre Dame College.
"It will probably be the toughest tournament in the first semester," said Hutchens.