The No. 7-ranked Ashland University wrestling team is breaking the mold this year, sending seven grapplers to Birmingham, Ala., to compete in the Division II National Championships on Friday (March 10) and Saturday (March 11).
Six Eagle wrestlers competed at nationals in each of head coach Josh Hutchens' first three seasons at Ashland.
"We did break through," Hutchens said. "We were happy, but it's a really quick celebration. We didn't train for regionals, we trained to go through it. We've got to now go to the next level and take the program back to the Top 10."
Four wrestlers from each of the four regions make it to the national tournament, and seeding depends upon regional placement. Three Eagles were crowned regional champions, so they'll each be one of four No. 1 seeds at their weight. The other four AU wrestlers placed fourth at regionals, so they'll face No. 1 seeds in the first round of their bracket.
"We're expecting our No. 1 seeds to get to the finals and have a shot at winning," Hutchens said. "The other four guys put themselves into a bit of a hole. The goal for them is to get to the podium."
The Ashland wrestlers headed to nationals are as follows:
Redshirt senior, Michael Labry, No. 1 seed at 133 pounds
This will be Labry's fourth appearance at nationals, as he placed fourth in 2013, third in 2014 and second in 2015. He is 31-1 this season, with an undefeated record against D-II competition. Labry is the No. 1-ranked wrestler in the country at 133 pounds, according to the final Division II Wrestling Coaches Association poll that was released on Thursday (March 2).
"I expect Labry to win, and he expects to win," Hutchens said. "We all know that the best guy doesn't always win, but I expect him to based off of the way things have gone in the past. This time around, he's got the experience. "
Sophomore, Chandler Minnard, No. 4 seed at 141 pounds
Minnard is headed to nationals for the second year in a row, but this will be the first time he'll place if he can pull that off as an underdog. He is 20-11 this season, and will face Maryville senior Nate Rodriguez in the first round. Rodriguez is No. 1 in the country at 141 pounds with a 28-2 record this year.
"That's just the way it is," Hutchens said. "You can wrestle your best, but sometimes that's not good enough. It's just a strong field at the national tournament. I think they'll all be ready to perform, whether they win those matches or not. It's not going to be a lack of effort or whether they're scared or not performing. I don't think that's going to be a problem this year."
Redshirt senior, Brent Fickel, No. 4 seed at 149 pounds
Fickel will also be headed to nationals for the fourth time, as he earned All-American status once, placing eighth as a redshirt sophomore in 2015. Fickel, ranked eighth in the country at 22-10, will face Notre Dame College's No. 5-ranked sophomore Juwan Edmond. Edmond is 8-1 this season with a win over AU freshman Garrett Hall on January 13.
"In preparation," Hutchens said, "we've shifted everything a little bit this year. We've got an older team. In the past, the best thing some our guys could do was make it nationals, so we'd train them to qualify. The goal this year was to perform at our best two weeks after regionals, so this is where it's all at."
Redshirt freshman, Bret Romanzak, No. 4 seed at 165
Romanzak, sporting a solid 22-12 record, is one of two Eagles competing in their first national tournament this year. He's set up for a first-round match against McKendree's 165-pound redshirt sophomore Brock Wingbermuehle, ranked fourth in the country. In the second round, Hutchens says Romanzak could face an Oklahoma transfer or a defending national champ.
"He's got a pretty tough road," Hutchens said. "But he's had tough matches all year. He's wrestled the No. 1 guy at his weight twice. He's wrestled the defending national champ and five or six guys that have been in the rankings all year. He's battle-tested. He should be ready."
Redshirt junior, Jordan Murphy, No. 1 seed at 184
Murphy, ranked ninth in the country, is one of Ashland's three regional champions. After missing the first half of the season, Murphy has a 13-0 record. This will be his second straight trip to nationals with the Eagles.
"Jordan didn't get much credit in the rankings for what he did this year," Hutchens said. "I know he hasn't been ranked that high or predicted to win it the whole year, but he's wrestling well and he's got the ability."
Redshirt junior, Luke Cramer, No. 1 seed at 197
Luke Cramer is a regional champion and No. 3 in the country at 197 pounds. He made his first appearance at nationals as a sophomore in 2015. He is 25-3 this season with a first-round match against Minnesota State freshman Matt Bloome, who is 26-8 this year.
"When you're one of the top guys," Hutchens said, "you can't overlook the first two matches. But by the time you get to the semifinals, you're going to meet up with guys ranked higher than you, and now you're in a war to get in the finals."
Sophomore, Deaken McCoy, No. 4 seed at 285
Deaken McCoy is also making his first trip to nationals. At 19-8, he is set to face Mercyhurst senior Andy Welton, ranked No. 6 in the country with a 34-4 record this year.
"Deaken's got the personality," Hutchens said. "He goes out and does some crazy things. He'll go out and try to throw a guy into the bleachers if he can. I think he'll be ready."