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When heavyweight Steve Mocco transferred to Oklahoma State, anyone who knew anything about the sport of wrestling figured that Oklahoma State would be unbeatable for a couple of years. So far, that has proved correct.

The Cowboys will enter this season looking for a fourth straight NCAA team title. Only two programs in the history of collegiate wrestling have been able to accomplish that - Oklahoma State and Iowa, both of which accomplished the feat twice.

And overall, the 33 national championships put together by Oklahoma State wrestling are tops in any sport with any program involved with the NCAA.

"If you think about dynasties or traditions -Oklahoma State is close to the top as far as wrestling goes," said head coach John Smith. "We have to earn it. We have to remind ourselves everyday that championships are not given away; they are earned each year. It is about bringing out our very best from the start of practice and being very focused on the areas we have to improve. Even with the team we have coming back, if we don't improve, the nation is going to catch us."

That team coming back Smith speaks of includes nine of last year's starters. Four of those, Zack Esposito (149 lbs.), Johny Hendricks (165), Jake Rosholt (197) and Steve Mocco (285) will be looking to defend their NCAA individual titles from last year. Add into that mix returning All-Americans Coleman Scott (125) and Daniel Frishkorn (141), and you are looking at one tough team to move in front of.

As for which team can move in front of Oklahoma State - that is a much more difficult question. The door is wide open for many other programs. Two of those are Michigan and Oklahoma.

The Wolverines finished in the runner-up slot last year behind Oklahoma State, its most successful season in over three decades. Even with losing one national champion, this team is poised to continue to close the gap on the Cowboys.

All-Americans Josh Churella (141), Eric Tannenbaum (149), Ryan Churella (165) and Greg Wagner (285) will all compete for NCAA individual crowns this year. But the key to this team will rely on the success of juniors Mark Moos (133) and Nick Roy (174) along with freshman Steve Luke (157). If these three can have solid seasons, and run deep into the NCAA Championships this year, Michigan may have a chance to be closer than most people expect.

Oklahoma also will return a few NCAA title hopefuls, including two-time champion Teyon Ware (141), who has had a much better career than some anticipated when he went to Oklahoma. But over the past six or seven years, Sooners coaches have been able to find ways to get wrestlers most wouldn't think would be overly successful to the top of the medal podium.

Other returning All-Americans for the Sooners are Sam Hazewinkel (125), Matt Storniolo (149) and Joel Flaggert (197). All three of these wrestlers will have the expectations on them of placing high at the NCAA Championships this year, and if they are able to do that, Oklahoma will once again be in the hunt for a team trophy.

Minnesota, which won two consecutive NCAA team crowns just before Oklahoma State, is another team that could finish high this year. The Gophers will rely on a cast of young wrestlers, most of who gained valuable experience last year, but also battled some injuries.

Junior Cole Konrad (285) and sophomore Mack Reiter (133) had big seasons last year, leading Minnesota to a fifth-place finish at the NCAA Tournament. Both are expected to contend for individual titles this year. Matt Nagel (165) also earned All-American honors, placing sixth, but coaches expect him to also contend for a title this year.

Two other sophomores, C.P. Schlatter (157) and Roger Kish (184), battled injuries last season. Both wrestlers did make it to the round of 12 at the NCAA Championships, however, showing their resilience. If these two can stay healthy all season long, Minnesota is going to be a very tough team to beat in dual meets and in tournaments.

True freshman Dustin Schlatter (149) is also expected to crack the lineup and make an immediate impact for the Gophers.

Illinois is also very deep at most weight classes. Kyle Ott (125) has been to the last two NCAA finals, and Alex Tirapelle (157) was there in 2003. Like his older brother, Adam, he may have to wait until his senior season to get an NCAA crown.

Cassio Pero (141) was a surprise All-American last year. He won't sneak up on anyone this season, though. All-American Pete Friedl (184) will move up one weight class, shifting up Donny Reynolds (174) so that talented freshman Mike Poeta (165) can step in.

It is do or die time for another Big Ten program, the same program that ultimately put wrestling on the map for average sports fans - Iowa.

The Hawkeyes have not won an NCAA team title since 2000 in St. Louis. This program has had some major ups and downs since winning that year. But coming into this year, with a strong mix of youth and talent, Iowa could either end up second in the country, or not even making the top 10.

Seniors Ty Eustice (149) and Joe Johnston (157) finally broke through last year while Paul Bradley (184) earned his second All-American honor. But make no mistake about it, the leader of this squad is sophomore Mark Perry (174), who plans to move up in weight class this year.

For the Hawkeyes to have a chance at placing high in this year's tournament, all four of these wrestlers need to place in the top five of their respective weight classes. Another sophomore, heavyweight Matt Fields, must also live up to his hype. He was the wrestler brought in to replace Mocco, even before Mocco transferred. The Hawkeyes need him to score points at the NCAA Championships this year.

Iowa State should also bring back a competitive team.

The Cyclones will be led by NCAA finalist Nate Gallick (141) and All-Americans Trent Paulson (157), Travis Paulson (165) and Kurt Backes (184).

Two East Coast teams that have had a lot of success on the national level recently have lost some big weapons, but both Lehigh and Cornell expect to be in the top 10 by the end of the season anyways.

Lehigh has established itself as one of the top programs in the nation, and with some of its most recent recruiting classes, this program should contend for a national title in the next few years.

This year, senior Troy Letters (165) returns looking for his second NCAA title. There was talk that Letters may move up in weight this year, but he has not given any indication so far that he will move up. Two-time All-American Cory Cooperman (141) should also contend for a national title this year, which is also his last in a Lehigh singlet.

Former All-Americans Derek Zinck (157) and Travis Frick (174) must step back onto the podium at the NCAA Championships this year to get this team back into the top 10, however.

Cornell will bring back All-Americans Dustin Manotti (149) and Joe Mazzurco (174). Jerry Rinaldi (197) could also break into the All-American pack this year. True freshman Troy Nickerson (125) will also start. He has a lot of expectations on him to compete for a national title, but he is in a very deep weight class this year.

Arizona State returns All-Americans Brian Stith (157), Ryan Bader (197) and Cain Velasquez (285). The Sun Devils, all-around, have a very tough lineup. This will be a good dual team, but it may struggle at times in tournaments. Strong performances by Stith, Bader and Velasquez, however, could catapult this team into the top 10.

This year's NCAA team race is a major uphill battle when it comes to getting to the number one slot. It doesn't help all programs not named Oklahoma State and Oklahoma that the NCAA Championships are in Oklahoma City this year, possibly a fitting place to cap off a fourth straight team crown, and 34th overall, for the Cowboys.


Pre-Season Top 10: 1) Oklahoma State; 2) Michigan; 3) Oklahoma; 4) Minnesota; 5) Illinois; 6) Iowa; 7) Iowa State; 8) Lehigh; 9) Cornell; 10) Arizona State
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