The 2011-12 Washington and Lee wrestling program is in a transition phase under the guidance of new Head Coach Nathan Shearer. While many of the faces on the mat will remain the same, Shearer hopes that a few changes in the program, along with a new attitude, will produce greater gains.
"We've got a vision for the program and it starts with identifying some key aspects that will help make the program successful," said Shearer. "Our first goal was to increase our roster size and to retain the guys on our roster. We also wanted to upgrade our schedule to include more meets and better competition. The third goal was to change our attitude. It is an unknown variable and something that you can't always control, but I feel good. The guys have been positive and have raised the bar in terms of expectations and they are working hard towards meeting their goals."
While Shearer would eventually like to see his roster grow to 25-30 athletes, he is sitting in a better position with 14 individuals who will fill nine of the 10 weight classes this fall. Finding a heavyweight has proven difficult, but Shearer is hopeful he will fill the final weight class during the season.
Shearer also held true on his promise to change the schedule, beefing up the competition for the W&L Invitational (Jan. 14) and adding some additional dates and quality tournaments like the VMI Open (Nov. 5), the Ohio Northern Invitational (Dec. 3) and the Dessert Duals (Dec. 18) in Las Vegas.
"We are really big on development and participating against competition like this is only going to help us improve," said Shearer. "With the extra dates and more competition, we'll also be able to get the guys more matches and more mat time, and that will really help with our development throughout the season."
As for the team's attitude, it all starts at the top with the team's senior captains, Sam Campbell and David Dennis. Both will be among the team's most talented individuals and they've set the bar high by setting goals of winning the conference title in their weight classes and advancing to the NCAA Championships in order to earn All-America honors.
"Individually, the guys all have goals, but it's not about winning and losing or how we place at the Centennial Conference Championship, but we would like to win as many matches as possible," Shearer remarked. "Right now we're just focusing on their preparation and approach, their habits and daily routine. It's all about personal growth and I think that if we focus on that, success will come."
Individually, Shearer has a good idea about who will battle for the starting nod at each weight class, but he also stressed that everyone will receive mat time and much is still up for grabs.
Sophomore Nathan Hooper appears to be the team's top candidate at 125 pounds after missing the entire 2010-11 season following injuries to both knees. Hooper has been cleared to wrestle but has been limited in practice during the preseason.
"It's tough to place any expectations on him after having double ACL surgery," said Shearer. "He wants to make a big impact on the team, but it's been two years since he has competed."
Campbell is expected to provide a top contribution as a captain and likely starter at 133 pounds, while first-year Matt Howell will also figure in the team's plans at the weight class.
Last season, Campbell went 15-9 at 141 pounds en route to earning Capital One Third Team Academic All-America honors. For his career, he is 48-26 overall as one of the team's most experienced grapplers.
"Sam's dropping the weight to compete at 133 and we think that this will be the best thing for him to have a breakout year," noted Shearer. "This year is right in his wheelhouse and he wants to go to Nationals in Wisconsin. He's accomplished everything else he wanted in his college career off the mat and this is the one remaining thing that he wants. It would be a great cap to his college career."
Howell was a four-time district placewinner at the Bolles School in Florida.
"Like most first-years, he is young, but Matt is working hard and battling in there," said Shearer. "He'll end up competing for us a lot."
At 141 pounds, Shearer has more depth with the combination of sophomore Eric Fessel and first-years Conor Duffey and Robert Spinner. Fessel is the likely starter after posting a 12-7 record and winning two tournaments at 141 last season.
"Eric is a returning starter and he is coming off a season where he won more tournaments than anyone else on the team," said Shearer. "He's been working hard and should have a breakout year now having his rookie season behind him."
Duffey was a three-time conference champion at the Brooks School in Massachussetts, placing eighth at the Prep Nationals. Spinner was a two-time Virginia State qualifier at E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg.
"Conor is going to see a lot of time and Robert will be in the mix as well," said Shearer. 141 is our deepest weight class and all three guys could end up starting for us this season."
"I expect Kotchinian and Ross to do a lot better this year," said Shearer. "They have been making strides and are about ready to turn the corner."
Kotchinian had a successful high school career, but struggled during his rookie campaign, notching a 7-15 overall record.
"H.T. was the man in high school and he had a bit of a rough time last year, but he is making the necessary adjustments and I expect you'll see a different athlete out there this winter," said Shearer. "Ross has improved over his first two seasons and I expect even more of that improvement this year. Both guys will compete a lot for us this season."
Shearer described Reed as a "hustler" on the mat and a "coachable athlete with a tremendous work ethic."
Dennis is the team's top option at 157 pounds again this year after placing fourth at 165 pounds at the Centennial Conference Championships last season. He went 17-10 last season and enters his senior year with a 48-24 career record.
"David is going to drop a weight class and he is someone who will definitely contribute to the success of our team," noted Shearer. "He is highly-motivated and he is rallying the guys, putting extras on the mat and he has his sights set on NCAAs – he is right there."
Sophomore Dan Igel will also compete for mat time at 157 and more likely at 165 or 174 pounds after going 9-11 at 157 pounds during his rookie campaign.
"Daniel is going to be pushing David every day in the weight room and he's going to wrestle a lot of matches for us," Shearer exclaimed. "He is your typical 'Yes Coach' type of guy and a future leader on this team."
At 165 pounds, first-year Marino Orlandi, along with Igel, appear to be the team's top options. A state champion at prep powerhouse Blair Academy last season, Orlandi will have an immediate impact on the team this winter.
"Marino is looking good and he has his sights set on doing some pretty good things," said Shearer. "He comes from a tremendous high school program and that experience will help him greatly."
Igel and Marino are the likely starters at 174 pounds, but first-year Morgan Moskal will also see some mat time at that weight, along with time at 184 and 197 pounds. Sophomore Jordan Yost will likely drop from 197 pounds and wrestle at 184 this season, while Moskal will probably see the bulk of his mat time as the starter at 197 pounds.
"Morgan is a coachable athlete, who is very enthusiastic about competing and gaining more experience on the mat," said Shearer. "We'll look to use him at a few different weight classes."
Shearer noted the drop from 197 to 184 when speaking of Yost and commented on his commitment to succeeding.
"Jordan made a huge commitment during the off-season and he has set his focus on making it to Nationals," he said. "He wants it and is putting in the time and work to make it happen."
While Shearer is cautious in placing expectations on his team during his first season in Lexington, his excitement and enthusiasm for what the team can accomplish is evident. With a positive outlook and a number of lofty, yet attainable individual goals, the 2011-12 team can be the launching point for a successful program not only this season, but for seasons to come.
The Generals will begin to work towards their goals on Saturday as they open the season at the VMI Open. Competition begins at 10:00 am.