Wauseon turned 16 years of frustration into a celebration by winning a Northwest Ohio Athletic League title last season and with all but one starter back the Indians appear primed to continue their reign.
Thirteen of the 14 weight classes will be filled with returning starters for a Wauseon team that captured the program's first NWOAL title since 1994. Ten district qualifiers also are back. Senior Nick McCall, senior Luke Tanier, junior Dalton Nicely, and sophomore Zane Krall all reached the state tournament last season.
"We have a very good nucleus back," Wauseon coach Mike Ritter said. "But we've got a balanced league. There are some teams that offer good matchups for us. It certainly is not set in stone. We have to go out and perform. Now we have a target on our backs. We'll get the best shot every match."
The Indians also have great depth with large numbers and confidence.
"It had been 26 years since we had won one outright," Ritter said. "So for our kids to come through like that meant a lot. They put in the hard work and performed on the mat. It was a special year. I could not have been happier."
But Archbold also has plenty of talent returning with six district qualifiers and is expected to be Wauseon's biggest challenger. Blue Streaks coach Brian Becher said the NWOAL is loaded with individuals who should qualify for the state tournament.
"I would consider Wauseon to be the favorite heading into the season," Becher said. "I expect that a majority of teams in our league will have a state placer at the end of the season."
Delta and Liberty Center also are among the teams with wrestlers capable of challenging Wauseon and reaching Columbus.
"On paper we have a great chance of repeating if things fall in line," Ritter said. "But Archbold has a lot of kids coming back too. They're solid from top to bottom. Delta is young but pretty talented. Those teams will be nipping at our heels."
The team champion is decided by a combination of dual meet and tournament points.
"You have to perform at both or someone could sneak up and pass you," Ritter said.
The NWOAL tournament is Feb. 12 at Archbold.
Here is a look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
Wauseon has a whopping 35 wrestlers in the program, including 13 returning letter winners and seven seniors. Ritter is in his seventh year at Wauseon.
McCall (171/189) is a two-time state placer. He posted a 43-6 record last season. Tanier (160) went 35-13 and also qualified for state.
"They are great workout partners and that has helped both get better," Ritter said.
Nicely (130) posted a 39-9 record and Krall (215), a transfer from Liberty Center, was 35-13 last season.
Sophomore Austin Yarnell (135) also was a district qualifier.
The Indians' highest finish at state was in 1984 when they finished runner up.
"We have some ways to go to get that point," Ritter said. "If all goes right we hope to be on the leader board."
The injury bug is the biggest impediment to Wauseon's success and sophomore Jake Trejo already has been lost to a dislocated elbow.
"We're bunched in weight class," Ritter said. "We need to spread guys out and put our best guys on the mat."
Archbold's coach Becher lost just three letter winners to graduation and has 14 back.
Junior Jordan Cowell (145) was a state qualifier and senior T.J. Weirach (125) was a state alternate. Four district qualifiers also return: sophomore Ben Eggers (103), junior Cody Kovnesky (160), junior Tyler Rufenacht (160), and senior Brandon Dennie (285).
"We have a good dispersion of weights," Becher said.
He said the success of the Blue Streaks' football team, which reached the second round in state competition, has increased confidence and expectations.
"We have some guys that we expect to be competing and placing in Columbus," Becher said.
Delta has three seniors and 11 starters back under first-year coach Anthony Carrizales.
Junior Luke Kern (130/135), a transfer from Liberty Center, took eighth at state last year. Kern and senior Tyler Yant (152) are two-time state qualifiers. Sophomore Seth Colvin (119) was a sectional champ and sophomore Jarret Wolford (135/140) was a district qualifier. Senior Eric Puehler (189/215) was injured last year but still made it out of sectionals. Senior Zach Nolan (171) and sophomore Jared Mattin are much improved, while freshmen Kyle Keller and Tyler Fahrer are the real deal.
But a lot of underclassmen are starting, Carrizales said
"Despite being young, we have a wealth of talent and tradition to build off," he said. "The focus is on the state run with the goal being state placers and state champions. I'm confident when February hits our upperclassmen will do what they need to do to lead our underclassmen to a heck of a showing in Columbus."
Liberty Center has wrestlers with the right mind-set for success, according to fifth-year coach Mitch Aring.
"They are pushing themselves and each other while taking care of their bodies," he said.
"Seniors have to lead by example, juniors have to show big improvement, sophomores need to push themselves harder, and freshmen need to be on a steep learning curve."
Aring, who has a career record of 56-18, has 21 wrestlers, five seniors, and eight returning starters.
Sophomore Zach Niner (145) is a state qualifier. Senior Ben Martinez (125) is a two-time district qualifier. Seniors Kyle Stacey (140) and Sam Elling (171) and sophomore Jimmy Spieth (160) are returning district qualifiers.
But the Tigers are a young team with half the lineup filled by underclassmen who must understand the physicality and intensity of wrestling, Aring said.
"The mentality here is to qualify each of the 14 weight classes for the state tournament," he said.
Bryan has 24 total wrestlers, including six returning starters.
The team's three seniors are Alex Hey (285), a returning district qualifier, Kenny Goebel (160), and Jake Robb (145/152).
Sophomores Shelden Struble (130), Wes Walther (125), and Evin Walkowski (112) were all district qualifiers as freshmen. Struble was an NWOAL champ.
Overall, the Golden Bears are inexperienced.
First-year coach Phil Whitker said the team is working hard on the basics. He said he hopes his team peaks at the league, sectional, and district meets.
"We're young, but we hope to be competitive," Whitker said.
Evergreen has 17 wrestlers, eight starters, and two seniors back for coach Paul Lulfs, who is in his fifth season.
Junior Austen Lulfs (140), the coach's son, is a two-time district qualifier who posted a 35-10 record.
Senior Cody Rade (152), junior Jamie Boger (119) and sophomore Kurtis Pierce (112) all were district qualifiers. Senior Chris Flickenger (285) also returns.
Lulfs said his team's strengths are in its lower and middle weights. But lack of depth and numbers make any potential injuries a big problem.
"We qualified eight for districts and took second in the sectional last year and we hope to be back in contention for that," Lulfs said.
Swanton has three wrestlers with the potential to reach 100 wins this season.
Junior Mimmo Lytle (285), senior Derek Johnson (215), and senior Tom Leahy (160) are on the brink of reaching that plateau.
Lytle is a two-time state placer (eighth and third). Johnson also is a two-time state qualifier, while Leahy is a state qualifier. Senior Chris Cook (145/140) and sophomore Jacob McCoy (103) are returning district qualifiers.
"Our strength is our work ethic and our willingness to get better every day," coach Greg Hallett said.
He has 10 returning starters.
But with only 22 wrestlers, he will have trouble filling all the weight classes and must forfeit some matches.
Patrick Henry has one of the league's best grapplers in senior Xavier Dye, who will wrestle at Cleveland State University.
Dye (171) is a three-time state qualifier and took fourth place as a junior at state. The Patriots' other district qualifiers are sophomores Calvin Palmer (140) and Keith Palmer (152). Mitchell Schulze (189/215), Chase Wright (215), and Adam Weaver (135/140) also are returning starters.
"We have a decent upcoming class to go along with our district qualifiers," coach Victor Lopez said.
But it's a young team consisting mostly of freshmen. The strength is in the middle to upper weight classes.
"We have great expectations of our wrestlers and we hope to continually improve our strengths and recognize our weaknesses," Lopez said.
Montpelier looks to be extremely inexperienced with 12 new starters in the lineup for 10th-year coach Troy Roth, whose career record is 103-91.
There are six seniors and three starters back among 20 in the program.
Senior Cody Lamberson (135) qualified for the district tournament last year. Junior Kevin Harrison (160) is one of four letter winners who return.
"We can fill all of the weight classes," Roth said. "But we're rebuilding after coming off a school-record year. We graduated 13 seniors from last year's team. It feels like we're starting over."