One year removed from the team's best finish since 2002, Ashland University wrestling is in its final days of preparation for the 2018 NCAA Division II National Championships in Cedar Rapids, Iowa set for Friday (March 9) and Saturday (March 10).
The Eagles placed sixth last season with seven wrestlers at nationals in Birmingham, Ala. Three AU wrestlers earned All-American honors, including the program's first national champion since 1996 in 2017 senior Michael Labry (133 pounds).
This year, five Eagles will take the mat for Ashland. And if expectations are met, history will be made.
"The positive is that the five guys we have here all have the capability of placing," fifth-year head coach Josh Hutchens said.
Bret Romanzak, redshirt sophomore, 165 pounds – Romanzak is the lone Eagle ranked No. 1 in the country at his weight. He earned his first-career top ranking in the National Wrestling Coaches Association poll released on Friday (March 2).
"Bret's got the big target on his back now," Hutchens said. "He's the one they'll circle and say that's who they have to beat."
He won his first individual regional title on Feb. 24, helping lead Ashland to its first team regional title since Hutchens took over.
As a redshirt freshman in 2017, Romanzak just barely made nationals by placing fourth in the region. He lost both of his matches.
Romanzak enters the national championships with 35 victories this season, 10 more than any other Ashland wrestler.
Jordan Murphy, redshirt senior, 184 pounds – Murphy hasn't lost any of his 21 matches this season, as he heads to the national championships undefeated for the second year in a row. He's currently ranked second at his weight behind a sophomore from No. 15 Colorado State-Pueblo.
Murphy placed sixth at his second nationals appearance in 2017, becoming one of the three Eagles to gain All-American status. He's now won back-to-back regional titles.
If he wins a title, he'll be the first in team history to complete a season as an undefeated national champion.
Luke Cramer, redshirt senior, 197 pounds – Cramer spent most of the 2017-18 season atop the rankings at 197, but suffered his only loss of the season in a dual at Findlay on Feb. 7. He's 21-1 this year, and he sits at No. 2 in the country behind a Shippensburg senior.
He became a two-time regional champion this season, and he'll be the only Eagle on the roster to make his third trip to nationals. He became an All-American for the first time last season by finishing in third place.
Cramer's 84 career wins are 27 more than any current AU wrestler.
"The biggest thing for the guys with the No. 1 seed is to stay focused at not overlook that first match," Hutchens said.
Christian Price, redshirt sophomore, 174 pounds – Price, second among Ashland wrestlers with 25 wins this season, is No. 8 in the country in his class.
He leads the Eagles with 71 takedowns throughout 2017-18. His 19 four-point near falls and five technical falls lead the five AU wrestlers going to Iowa.
Price placed second in the region and will be going to nationals for the first time. He lost to two-time defending national champion Nick Becker of Wisconsin-Parkside in the regional final.
"He's in a good position," Hutchens said. "A lot of these people haven't seen his stuff. He's got some good stuff that he uses, and people start to work on defending his moves when they see him several times. These guys won't know what's coming."
Lawrance Dudgeon, junior, 133 pounds – Dudgeon spent a portion of the season in the national rankings. However, he is the only unranked Eagle that will be present in Iowa.
Dudgeon squeezed his way into the national tournament by posting a 5-2 record at regionals and earning fourth place.
"Lawrance had the toughest route," Hutchens said, "but coming back the way he did means that he's battle-tested and ready to go."
He is 24-12 this season, leaving him third on the team in wins. He pinned 10 of his opponents, doubling the amount of falls that anyone else on his team has had throughout the year.
Of the five national champions in Ashland wrestling history, no more than one won a title in the same season.
"We talk about the possibilities," Hutchens said. "It's all great to think about. But at the end of the day, it's what does happen. If it happens, that would be the best-case scenario. But we also have to realize how difficult that's going to be."