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Lakeland head wrestling coach Pete Rogers has turned Lakeland's program into one of the top wrestling programs in the state in his six years at the helm. But that only means Rogers is setting the bar a little higher this year.
"We don't want to be just a great team for the area, we want to be a great team in the nation," Rogers said.
Last year, Lakeland went 11-8 in dual meets against some of the sport's top competition.
"We battled teams that were in the top 30 in the nation," said Rogers. "We fought with them and every time came up just one match short of beating them. We were right there. I think this is the year we will start jumping over and beating some of those teams. We made a huge step last year and I think this year is our break-out year."
The Muskies focus always remains on the end of the season, which is the tough Great Lakes Regional. Five of the 15 schools that feed into that regional are nationally ranked.
"It's one of the more competitive regionals out there," Rogers said. "It's tough to get out of the regional, but if you do, you have a good shot at being an All-American, which is one of the top eight in the nation."
Rogers said his lineup includes at least five wrestlers he feels have a shot at national qualifier and All-American status this year.
"I have more seniors and they've been wrestling with good competition in practice, whereas the seniors before didn't have the luxury of being able to practice with great people," Rogers said. "I think it'll show a lot of improvement on our team just because the recruits coming in have great people around them to practice with. They're not just going to be given a spot; they are going to have to earn it. We didn't have that when I first started here."
The Muskies will have plenty of depth to draw from as they lost just two seniors last year, Lee Sparks and Tim Vallier.
Sparks was a Lake Michigan Conference champion both his junior and senior year, while Vallier was an LMC champion his junior year and runner-up in his senior season.
"I lost two seniors, but they'll be replaced by pretty solid guys," said Rogers. "I think our team at the end of the year is going to be better our team at the beginning of the year just because we are young. They are going to have to take their lumps a little bit, but by the end of the second semester we should be right where we need to be.
"Last year we had guys that could compete on any given day with a top-ranked wrestler, but they weren't as consistent as I would have liked."
Senior heavyweight Mark Vanden Hoogen (Green Bay/Green Bay West) who had a stellar season is expected to make big contributions again this year. The standout finished the season with 24-14 record including winning the LMC heavyweight title and placing fourth at the Great Lakes Regional.
"Mark just kept steadily improving last season, and I think he has a great chance of doing a lot of things nationally this year," Rogers said. "He beat a kid who was a national qualifier and he'll see him again in the first match of the year. Hopefully that will get him into the rankings."
Senior Matt Primesberger (Appleton/Appleton East) is another key component of the Lakeland wrestling line-up at the 141-pound weight class.
"He's a great leader on and off the mat," explained Rogers. "He'll have a breakthrough season with the high goals he has set for himself."
Junior Paul Hartt (Port Charlotte, Fla./Charlotte), one of the team captains, is also expected to be a strong contender for the Muskies at the 184. He took runner-up honors in the LMC Championships and fourth at the Great Lakes Regional.
"He's been doing the right things in the off season, and every year his record has improved dramatically," said Rogers. "He has been training with good people in the off season. I think he has a chance to be a national-caliber wrestler."
Sophomore David Copp (Oostburg/Oostburg), who wrestles at 125, will be another crucial piece of the team. As a freshman last year he had a strong finish at the end of the season including runner-up honors at the LMC Championships.
"He ended up getting hurt in the last match of the season when he was beating the second seed in our regional," Rogers said. "He dislocated his shoulder. I think this year is going to be a breakout year for him."
Junior Calvin O'neal (Pontiac/Pontiac Central) finished with a 14-1 record in his first year as a Muskie and is expect to have an even better season this year. O'neal was an junior college national qualifier before transferring to Lakeland last year.
"He'll be back second semester for us," Rogers said. "He led the team with 68 takedowns. Sixty-eight takedowns in 15 matches is an incredible amount. He only wrestled half a season and had more than our takedown leader last year. He's just a great wrestler. If all goes well, he's the real deal."
To add to the Muskies depth, Rogers has brought in seven freshmen. Highlighting the incoming class is Cameron Smit (Brandon/Laconia), a three-time Wisconsin state qualifier and took third at the state finals last season. Joining Smit are Clint Harbord (Plattsburg, Mo./Plattsburg), a four-time Missouri state qualifier who placed third his junior year and fifth his senior year; James Jinning (Milwaukee/Bayview), a Wisconsin state qualifier; Brenton Lambie (Hortonville/Hortonville), a Wisconsin sectional qualifier his senior year of high school; Jacob Frias (Oak Lawn, Ill./H.L. Richards), who holds the career wins record at his high school; and Adam Sutter (Gladstone, Mich./Gladstone), a two-time Upper Peninsula State Champion who was named Mr. Wrestler 2005.
"I think a lot of them will have an opportunity to wrestle varsity," said Rogers. "I think my recruiting class was good. Most qualified for state and did well. I think their success in high school will carry over to college wrestling.
"I think the freshmen will have the opportunity to start, but it won't be like other years where they all start, which is a good thing. They'll get a little more mat time before they're wrestling varsity. I think I have a group of kids that can show up and do a really good job. They are hard workers and they are dedicated.
"We're solid in every weight class and I think up and down the line we have kids that can turn it on and wrestle well. We won't have a hole in any weight class which is nice. We have back-ups in every weight, so if we have an injury we can dig there."
In addition to new recruits, another noticeable change for the Muskies will be four coaches. In years past, there has just been a head coach and an assistant. New to the coaching line up are former Ohio State University wrestler Steve Sommer, former UW-Oshkosh grappler Nate Muckerheide and former Lakeland standout Tim Vallier.
"I think Steve brought in a lot just graduating," said Rogers. "He demands an awful lot of the guys to work hard and they're responding to it. You don't know when you get a little crazy on them if they are going to respond or shutdown. They have responded already."
In order for the Lakeland grapplers to be successful they'll have to get through several top ranked teams.
"We have a tough schedule and wrestle a lot of top 10, top 20, top 30 teams in the nation, said Rogers. "Our schedule is rough, but it'll show. It'll only make us better in the long run. You've got to wrestle the best to get there."