The Ashland University wrestling team, coming off a season in which it finished 14th in the country, begins its 2016-17 season on Saturday (Nov. 5) at 10 a.m. at the Eastern Michigan Open.
With a 1-2 record, the Eagles finished tied for third in the four-team Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference standings in 2016. Ashland won't begin its GLIAC dual-meet competition until Jan. 28.
"Last season, I thought it was going to be a very close and competitive conference race," Ashland fourth-year head coach Josh Hutchens said. "And it was. It came down to an overtime loss to Findlay; otherwise, we would've won the conference. This year, I think it's going to be just as close."
Already having earned a No. 4 regional ranking and No. 11 national ranking in the D2Wrestle.com preseason polls, Hutchens says he's excited to see how far his team has come this offseason.
"I think as a team overall," he said, "we should be stronger this year. I think that even though we lost a couple guys, we brought a couple more back off of redshirt. And then the guys that are here are older. So most of our lineup is guys that were in the lineup last year that are coming back."
In 2016, six Eagle wrestlers made it to the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships, and three of them are active on this year's roster. That list is made up of redshirt senior Brent Fickel (149 pounds), senior Jordan Murphy (184) and sophomore Chandler Minnard (141).
"We've got a lot of guys that are looking to get on the podium," Hutchens said.
Labry, a three-time All-American, is ranked at the top of his weight class regionally and second in his class nationally, according to the D2Wrestle.com polls.
"Labry is our main guy coming back," Hutchens said. "The goal this year is to win nationals. And he has to beat the defending national champ to do it. So it won't be easy, but that's probably our guy who has the best chance."
Fickel, an All-American in 2015, is ranked first regionally and fourth nationally. Minnard is second regionally and ninth nationally. Rounding out the regionally-ranked Ashland wrestlers is Cramer at No. 5, redshirt freshman Bret Romanzak (165) at No. 8 and redshirt sophomore Sebastian Vidika (125) at No. 4.
The team will also feature new wrestlers at the 157-pound and 285-pound weight classes. Redshirt junior J.J. Diven, who is 14-18 in two seasons at Ashland, is the front-runner to compete at 157. And Deaken McCoy, a sophomore transfer from St. Catharine College who qualified for state three times at nearby Galion High School is the frontrunner to compete at 285.
"The focus is still the same every year," Hutchens said. "You continue to try and build on the skills you've been working on. We've really focused on coming off the bottom and improving our mat wrestling. And we've focused on our shot setups. Some of our guys started working on new shots last year, and now they're just continuing to try and learn and perfect them.
"We should see some guys do some different things this year, but they've been working on it for a few years. So it takes a while to learn new skills. We're trying to teach the new guys stuff that the rest of us have done well."
The 2017 Super Regional is in Indianapolis, Ind., on Feb. 24-25. Division II nationals is in Birmingham, Ala., on March 10-11.