In 2014, Ashland University's wrestling team sent six grapplers to the NCAA Division II national tournament.
Graduation and redshirting left the Eagles with a somewhat-green group coming into the 2014-15 season. The result, naturally, became the same – six Eagles heading to this year's nationals, March 13-14 in St. Louis, Mo.
"Of course, we had Labry, Burns and Fickel returning as national qualifiers," Ashland head coach Josh Hutchens said of returning national qualifiers Michael Labry (junior), Kyle Burns (sophomore) and Brent Fickel (sophomore). "We were thinking that those three would be there."
Labry and Fickel have returned to nationals – Labry for a third time at 133 pounds and Fickel for a second time at 149. They will be joined by four first-timers – junior Zeb Beam at 157, sophomore Luke Cramer at 174, junior Kurt Schaefer at 184 and sophomore Brandon O'Neill at 197.
"Beam has been in the lineup and has been competitive," Hutchens said. "I thought O'Neill and Schaefer had a chance at the beginning of the year. In my mind, I was thinking seven or eight. My expectations or goals are lofty.
"As you go through the year, with injuries, there weren't a lot of people who were thinking six. One wrong move here or there, and it could have been three instead of six."
Labry, a two-time All-American and the Division II Super Region II Wrestler of the Year, is 39-1 with 10 pins this season, and is 109-10 as an Eagle. He is fifth in the latest Division II Most Dominant Wrestler standings.
If Labry meets Nebraska-Kearney's Daniel DeShazer (35-5), it won't be until the championship match. The only other time the two have met in a college match was in the 2014 national semifinals, when DeShazer won a 3-2 decision in overtime.
"Anything can happen. We've scouted everyone on his side of the bracket," Hutchens said. "Realistically, he shouldn't have a real hard time until the semifinals."
Fickel has fought through an injury-plagued season to make his second straight nationals appearance. He is 17-6 with four pins this season.
"He's got a tough draw right off the bat," Hutchens said of Fickel's first opponent, third-ranked Terrel Wilbourn of Lindenwood. "It's going to be a battle right off the bat. We're in it for the long haul. It's about focusing on that match.
"We do the same prep going into the regionals. We focus on what's in our control. At this point, you're really not going to get a whole lot better in a week. We get a game plan for each opponent, and other than that, you show up and wrestle."
Both Schaefer (27-10, six pins) and O'Neill (26-7, one pin) took advantage of their opportunities created when two senior All-Americans – Bryson Hall (184) and Joe Brandt (197) – redshirted this season.
"They got a chance to get in the lineup, and they didn't look back," said Hutchens. "I don't think the nerves are going to be a big issue for them. They're definitely ready. And neither of them are freshmen, either. They've been around."
Beam (14-10) has come on of late, a stretch which began in a home dual against Findlay when he recorded a late decision against the Roughnecks' Joey White.
"Last year, he had a close battle on the team for the starting position. It was a battle for him," Hutchens said. "Maybe he was overlooked this year. He didn't have any real significant wins over the year. He's been quietly doing well. He's beaten some people who have been in the rankings. They haven't been flashy matches.
"That was also, for the team, when we started to pull back training. We've seen some guys respond well."
Cramer is 18-9 with a pair of pins.
"He's definitely battle-tested. Over the course of the last two years, he's had some tough losses and some big wins," said Hutchens.
"Obviously, the prime scenario is six All-Americans, and we have that capability. Most of the people at the national tournament have the potential to place. We're just focusing on winning every situation of a match. I'm thrilled that we have six guys there. I will be giving them some praise for that after the season is over. But we're not celebrating. That's all we're focused on is that first-round match."