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The Lakeland College wrestling team headed into the 2007-08 season with one goal in mind - to compete at the national level.
With its first-ever national team ranking, two wrestlers who are individually ranked in their respective weight classes and having won the program's first-ever Northern Wrestling Association title this past Saturday, the season seems to have gone as smoothly as anyone could have hoped up to this point.
Now, the Muskies stand poised to validate everything they have been working towards as they head into this weekend's NCAA Division III Great Lakes Regional with a chance to compete on the national stage.
The regional will be hosted by St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. Meet start time is set for 9 a.m. To visit the Great Lakes Regional website, please click here.
"I'm excited for the regional tournament," said head coach Pete Rogers, who is confident in his team's ability to improve on last year's seventh-place finish. "I think we have some guys who can get it done if we wrestle at the level we are capable of."
The Muskies, who currently post a 13-5-1 record, have already surpassed the expectations of many this season by launching themselves into the national spotlight with a No. 28 ranking, a convincing victory in the NWA Tournament and an undefeated 5-0 record against schools in the talented Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Those victories were highlighted by a profound 31-11 underdog victory over UW-Stevens Point, currently ranked No. 7 in the nation, back in November.
"For me, as a coach, it would be just a phenomenal thing to be able to continue the success of our season," Rogers said. "We've already had a really exciting season being able to get into the national rankings for the first time and being able to go 5-0 with the WIAC schools. It was also a relief to finally win the conference meet this year. If we were able to top it off by having a couple of our guys go to the national tournament and become All-Americans, it would finally seal the work that we've put in as a team. I don't think most people realize how much physical and mental effort it takes to get to the elite level in wrestling, and to have all of that hard work validated would really mean something."
The success of senior Paul Hartt and sophomore Adam Sutter will definitely factor into the Muskies' ability to put forth a solid showing at regionals, as the pair has helped lead the squad with steady performances all season.
Hartt, who is ranked No. 3 in the nation at 197 pounds, has compiled a stunning 34-1 record and is looking to improve on last year's fourth-place showing at regionals. He looks to be in top form heading into the meet, having earned one of the Muskies' four NWA individual titles on Saturday.
"I definitely think we'll place in the top five," Hartt said of the regional meet. "We did a good job at Wheaton with only six guys since we were missing Ben Chapman and David Copp, so I think that shows we're capable of a lot more with the whole team now that those two are back."
At Wheaton College's 27-team Pete Willson Invite, Hartt brought home the championship in his weight class, blowing away the competition in each of his five matches.
"Paul Hartt is one of the guys to beat nationally," Rogers said. "When you see someone put in as much time as he has in the last four years, there's no question that he deserves it. He's done all of the right things to get to that elite level, and he has the talent to get it done. He's had the goal in mind of being an All-American and a possible national champion for a long time. It's really exciting for him, and I hope he can continue to do well."
Sutter has also solidified himself as a national contender in his first year as the Muskies' starter in the 285-pound division, garnering a No. 7 national ranking in the latest poll and winning the NWA title in the heavyweight division. He has also accumulated an impressive 34-3 record, and will look to make a run at the national tournament with a solid showing at regionals.
"It would be awesome to go to nationals because Paul and I would be the first to do that in a long time," Sutter said. "My goal is to be an All-American and come back next year and do the same thing."
Lakeland's first and last national qualifier came in 2002 when Lee Kadinger placed sixth at 165 pounds during Rogers' first year as head coach. Last year, Mark Vanden Hoogen had a solid shot at heading to nationals as one of the region's top heavyweight prospects, but a late-season broken foot prevented him from making it out of regionals.
However, both Hartt and Sutter have a chance to take Lakeland back to the national tournament thanks to their talent, experience and sheer will to succeed.
"Adam Sutter has more talent that anybody on my team," Rogers said. "He's just a big, strong, athletic guy, and he's really made some huge improvements by coming in to get some extra workouts in since last year. He made the decision of wanting to become an All-American with the possibility of being even more. He's very focused, and I don't think there's any part of him that doesn't think that he's going to be wrestling at the national tournament."
Two of Sutter's three losses have come at the hands of Knox College's Jaran Rutledge, ranked No. 4 in the nation, with the pair most recently hashing it out in the championship match at Wheaton where Sutter fell, 3-2, in double overtime.
With that in mind, Sutter knows that his bid to nationals could ride on his ability to find a way to defeat Rutledge.
"I'm going to see him in regionals and nationals," Sutter said. "I guess there is a lot of pressure because it's my obstacle to overcome."
While both have goals of reaching the All-American level, they must first take care of business in the regional meet, as only the top two finishers in each weight class will advance to the national tournament, along with three wild-card entries. With that requirement in mind, this year's post-season carries a heightened level of importance for Hartt, with his collegiate career rapidly drawing to a close.
"It's my last chance to prove myself since it's my last go-around," Hartt said. "I have to get to nationals first, and then I'd definitely like to place in the top eight. We'll see what happens in the next couple weeks, but it would mean a lot to me because I haven't made it to nationals yet. It would be the best thing in the world to me because it would prove that all the hard work I've put in was worth it."
Rogers feels an edge for Hartt and Sutter this weekend is that they're expected to do well - and not just by the Lakeland faithful.
"They're more in the driver's seat than other people in the regional because people know they have to beat those two to make it to nationals, not the other way around," Rogers said. "That situation is something different than anything I have experienced while at Lakeland."
The high goals of Hartt and Sutter have also had a contagious effect on the Muskies' entire squad, as several of their teammates have stepped up their efforts this season and have equally good chances at finding success in the post-season.
Junior David Copp joined Hartt to turn out a fourth-place finish last year in the 125-pound division, and has fought off some injuries this season to ready himself for a chance to improve on that mark with a second-place finish at this past weekend's NWA meet in a thrilling overtime match, although he fell 8-7. Fellow juniors Ben Chapman (149) and Jonas Flok (157) have also developed by leaps and bounds throughout the season, and seem to be peaking at just the right time, having earned conference titles in their respective weight classes.
"Those three definitely have the ability to get to the national tournament, they just have to perform when it counts," Rogers said. "They have all wrestled at that level during the season, and have shown glimpses that they are good enough caliber wrestlers to make it to the next level."
Rogers also gives junior Kory Theil (141) and sophomore Jake Frias (174) the nod for their recent notable progressions, as both placed second in their respective weight classes at the NWA meet with key sixth-place finishes at the Pete Willson Invite.
"Kory Theil has really come on strong as well and has had a great season," Rogers said. "If he continues on the way he is going, there is no reason why he can't be one of those guys who is right in the thick of things at the end of the year. Frias has also come on strong, and has a chance if he continues to perform well."
The Muskies will certainly need to be in top form if they hope to compete with some of the stacked teams they will face at the Great Lakes Regional, which includes three other nationally-ranked teams.
"Augsburg (Minn.) is always in the top one or two in the nation every single year," Rogers said. "Elmhurst (No. 15) and North Central (No. 9) both beat us in duals earlier this year, but I think now that we have everybody back wrestling we can give them a run for their money. There's no reason why we can't finish in the top two to five teams if we wrestle well at the level we are capable of."