December 07, 2011 - It's time to strap on the headgear and roll out the wrestling mats.
Front Row (L-R): J. Hickman, C. Campbell, A. Hunsucker, K. Hill ,N. Cantera, P. Line, J. Peasley, J. Hassenzahl, A. Dutzy, B. Kammerer Second row (L-R): A. Moore, D. Curtis, S. Davis, A. Gibbons, W. Maskill, J. Accord, J. Brish, Z. Throne, A. Schlicht, N. Goodman, B. Goodman, R. Borg Third row (L-R): coaches Logan, Kerr, Gourlay, Shagena, J. Ruff, N. Kinne, J. Goodman, J. Pettiford, C. Garcia, B. Brougham - coaches Rank, Wilfong, Wood Back Row- S. Hendrix, Z. Wood, M. Crane, G. Krause, Z. Haddorn, M. Tuski, M. Gianolla, M. Smith, T. Spicuzza, M. Willits, C. Westmorland. (click for larger version)
Fresh off a come from behind victory over Novi Detroit Catholic Central in the Division I state finals, the Wildcats started practice on Monday, Nov. 21 with aspirations of making iy back-to-back state titles.
However, first-year head coach Brandon Rank, who took over the program from Brad Keeney, knows that everyone is going to be gunning for them.
"You earn a state title and people are gunning for you. It's part of that package and we signed up for that package," Rank said when asked about being everyone's target this year.
"When it's the biggest match of every team you come up against (during the) season, that means we have to step it up everytime we go out there," he added. "I want teams to be excited to wrestle us and I want my kids to perform in that excitement."
Gone are 13 members from last year's state title team, seven of which were regulars in the starting lineup.
Rank isn't too concerned about it due to the overall depth of the wrestling program.
"I think the word depth really describes it," he explained. "We graduated a really strong class, but we got guys who can step into those roles and we got some freshmen coming in that we are going to be counting on."
"We send out a varsity "A" squad and a varsity "B" squad for a reason. We want to have the backup kids ready to be in the forefront when it is their time," Rank said. "This year it is their time."
"They are not new to high level competition. These kids are excited," Rank added.
This year's team will be led by the core group of seniors, which includes Prescott Line, Noah Cantara, Kyle Hill, Jacob Peasley, Cody Westmoreland and Seth Miller.
Also returning are juniors Marty Giannola, Zack Hadorn and Rocco Borg, who Rank is also looking towards to help provide some leadership.
Rank said junior Daniel Curtis and sophomore Mike Willits were going to be players to keep an eye on this year.
"He (Curtis) wrestled a lot on our "B" team last year...he hasn't stopped wrestling since last season (and) he has made himself quite a wrestler," Rank said. "He is exciting to watch."
Last season, Willits sat behind all-stater Keegan Cantara. According to Rank, Willits is now getting his chance to claim the number one spot.
"I think he is as hungry as anybody right now to be a Wildcat," Rank said.
Even with all of the senior and returning presence throughout the lineup, Rank said he still has a young team that is hungry to prove itself.
"This year we have the talent, we have the right kids, but it is going to be a progression," Rank said. "We are going to win things along the way and I can see us being a title contender."
"These are self-motivated kids...I don't have to spend a lot of time hollering to stay on task," Rank added. "These kids are on task. They have a goal, they see it and they have bought into the system the classes ahead of them have put into place - you work hard and you get rewarded."
Even though the main goal of the season is to get back to Battle Creek and defend their state championship, winning the Oakland Activities Association Red division, districts and regionals is high on their list as well.
Rank feels the OAA Red will provide some strong competition for his guys.
"This is a very balanced league," he explained. "You got both Rochester High (School) and Rochester Adams, they're tough. Clarkston is always tough. Lake Orion...they teach them up over there and you got kids ready to brawl."
"Everybody is pretty even and it is going to come down to the work, the things that all these squads do," he added. "I think that the OAA tournament at the end of the year is going to be a highlight that people should come and watch."
In addition to a tough conference schedule, Oxford's non-conference and tournament schedule is brutal as well.
They start the season traveling to Davison on Thursday, Dec. 8. Oxford travels back to Davison on Saturday, Dec. 10 to compete in the Chase Challenge, which features some of the top teams in the state.
The Wildcats also brings in Novi Detroit Catholic Central to kick off the new year on January 4, and will compete in the Oakland County tournament and Macomb/Oakland County duals.
According to Rank, the tough schedule was necessary in order for his team to get used to competing on the big stage.
Oxford upped its schedule last year, and it paid off in a state title.
"We are not going to duck the tough competition...you don't want to step out onto the mat in a big situation for the first time. You want to be battle hardened and that is what we schedule for.," Rank said.
"It's a three month season. They don't hand out medals the first day," he added.
Andrew Moser is a staff writer for the Oxford Leader.