The Washington and Lee wrestling program approaches the 2010-11 season with plenty of excitement. The Generals are poised to make a leap forward but the goals remain modest – continue to get better one step at a time.
Head Coach Gary Franke, in his 38th and final season as the W&L mentor, along with Assistant Coach Mike Bennett, are looking at the year like an open staircase. One step at a time will indeed lead to the top.
"We have moved up one spot in the conference standings for each of the last three years and there's every reason to believe that can continue," noted Assistant Coach Mike Bennett. "The big theme is that we have a new attitude and the guys are motivated."
The team's preseason goals include winning a conference match during the regular season and having multiple wrestlers place in the regular season tournaments. The postseason goals include continuing to climb the Centennial Conference standing and have several wrestlers place in the conference meet. With hard work and a little luck that may translate into an individual conference champion and trip to the NCAA Championships in March.
"I think we can be a dark horse in the conference," noted Bennett. "We have added some talent and we now have some depth out there and there's no reason we can't win a few more conference matches during the season and continue to move up at the conference championships. We want guys to work hard and believe that they can compete in this conference. They are ambitious and motivated and it has been a fantastic training camp this fall."
Franke noted that it all begins with recruiting and that the Generals brought in a class that can challenge the 2008 graduating class as one of the best in recent memory.
"There are some parallels there and we think that this group of incoming athletes can accomplish just as much if not more," he said.
The biggest contribution the Generals first-year class has already brought to the program is competition and depth. The nine rookies have allowed W&L the opportunity to open competition for each of the weight classes and that competition has led to excitement within the program.
At 125 pounds, a pair of first-years were set to compete for the starting nod, but a preseason injury to Nate Hooper will likely mean the spot will go to another talented first-year, Brandon Stueben. An All-North Jersey honoree at Northern Highlands Regional, Stueben went 104-29 during his high school career.
"Brandon is a talented wrestler and he is good on his feet," said Bennett. "He is a good technician and we expect him to be competitive in the conference at 125 pounds."
The 133-pound weight class has plenty of competition with first-years Sam Mason and George Cauffman both battling it out for the starting nod. Junior captain Sam Campbell may also figure in the mix at 133.
Mason is recovering from an early injury and should return to the lineup by midseason. The Houston, Texas native was a two-year captain and three-time All-America selection at St. Thomas High School. Cauffman will have the early edge after a high school career that included four conference titles and a pair of all-conference honors. The Westtown High School graduate also competed at the state championships, placing fifth as a junior.
"Sam is a talented takedown guy and an All-American in high school," said Bennett. "We expect him to be competitive once he returns healthy." Added Bennett of Cauffman, "George is a tough guy. He is tall and we expect him to use his leverage to be a competitive wrestler on the mat."
Though Campbell may see time at 133 pounds, the Generals are expecting that he will be the top option at 141 pounds as he was a season ago. He led the team with 16 wins (16-7) last season and is a combined 33-17 over his first two seasons on the mat.
"Sam lost a heart-breaker at the conference meet last season and we are looking for him to place in the top three at the Centennial Championships this year," said Bennett. "He has a tremendous work ethic and is the leader of our team. We expect him to be an Scholar All-American for the second-straight season and we think he can make a run at the season takedown record."
In a change from recent years, Campbell will be pushed day in and day out to keep his starting position as talented first-year Eric Fessel will make a case for time on the mat. Fessel was a state champion at Georgetown Prep as a junior and was the state runner-up as a senior.
"We expect that Eric will challenge Sam," remarked Bennett. "He is a tremendous wrestler on the mat and he is motivated. He is not content to just be a backup this year and he is improving his takedowns every day."
At 149 pounds, first-year HT Kotchinian appears to be the top option though he will need to win it from sophomore Brian Ross. Kotchinian was a three-time all-conference selection and a two-time All-New England honoree at Belmont Hill School in Massachusetts. He also placed seventh at the Prep National Championships to earn All-America honors.
"HT comes to us with an outstanding high school resume and we expect him to compete for the starting position," said Bennett. "He is a fierce competitor and he brings that attitude to everyone in the room."
Ross was the team's rookie of the year in 2009-10 despite posting a 1-8 record and having his season cut short due to injury. A raw talent, he continues to improve day-to-day.
"Brian is constantly improving and he is a great teammate," said Bennett. "He not only gets better himself, but he makes those around him better as well."
Another rookie may crack the lineup at 157 pounds as Franke and Bennett expect first-year Daniel Igel to assume the responsibility. A graduate of the Bolles School, Igel was a two-year qualifier to the Florida State Tournament, finishing as the IA State Runner-up in 2010.
"Daniel is an outstanding athlete and he is already among the top leaders on the team," noted Bennett. "We are expecting him to run with the starting assignment at 157 and we're not expecting much of a dropoff from what [David] Dennis did at that weight last year. We believe Igel is going to be a legit conference contender."
Dennis bumps one weight class to 165 pounds after wrestling at 149 and 157 over the last two seasons. Last year, he logged a 15-5 record with a team-best five wins by fall en route to finishing as the conference runner-up at 157 pounds. He also garnered Scholar All-America honors.
"David bumps up a weight class, but we expect him to be in contention to win every match he wrestles this season," said Bennett. "He is on pace to have a shot at the season and career records for pins and we think he has the best chance to knock off the defending national champion from our conference (USMMA senior Vincent Renaut)."
Senior captain Keith Jaworski is the team's top option at 174 pounds after compiling an 8-14 record at 165 pounds in 2009-10. Jaworski has continued to improve every season throughout his career and the coaches expect him to continue that improvement this winter.
"Keith is one of the hardest workers on the team and he has developed tremendously over the last three years," remarked Bennett. "We think that his style is going to work well at the higher weight class."
At 184 pounds, another young developing wrestler will have the opportunity to show his wares. First-year Washington state native David McKennon has only been wrestling for two years, but he possesses tremendous potential after earning honorable mention all-conference honors on the mat as a senior.
"David has a lot of athleticism and he is big and physical as well," said Bennett. "He is a developing wrestler and his goal this year is to get plenty of mat experience and continue to develop, which we believe he will do quickly."
The Generals' 197 pound weight class will be manned by first-year Jordan Yost, who posted a 147-26 career record at Fairfax High School while placing in the Virginia State Championships twice.
"Jordan is an outstanding young talent and we expect him to do well," said Bennett. "He is already a team leader and he is the strongest guy on the team. He is also very quick and agile and we expect him to place at the conference championships as a rookie."
As has been a constant issue for W&L, there is a hole at 285 pounds. The Generals will look to avoid giving away points via forfeit by talking with a few members of the football team that could fill the void.
"There's a few guys out there that could be pretty good for us and it's just a matter of whether they would want to come out after football season ends," noted Bennett of the situation at heavyweight.
As a whole, the coaching staff is excited about the team's depth and all-around attitude and competitiveness the Generals have shown in the preseason.
"Competition breeds better results and our practices have been intense. The guys are pushing each other a little harder and it's nice knowing that if we lose someone, we have more options that we can plug into that spot," said Bennett. "There is a whole new attitude this season and we think that attitude will lead to winning."
The Generals will look to gain some momentum by having some individuals place at some early season tournaments like the Ursinus Fall Brawl (Nov. 13), W&L Fall Classic (Nov. 20), Messiah Petrofes Invitational (Dec. 4) and the W&L Invitational (Jan. 15). The Generals will also host the Centennial Conference Championships on February 26.
"We start off with some tough tournaments and we'd like to gain some momentum and win some conference matches to improve our seeding for the conference tournament," offered Bennett. "We gave up too many pins last year and I don't think we'll have that problem this year. We just need to believe in ourselves and know that we can be competitive in this conference."