Sure, Wartburg’s wrestling team only brings back three points from the 103 it scored to win the NCAA championship last March. In that regard, it’s not a surprise the Knights won’t open the season ranked No. 1 for the first time since 2010.
But to leave Wartburg, the four-time defending NCAA champs, completely out of the poll for the first time since 1990?
“They (the wrestlers) took it as a slap in the face,” Wartburg head coach Eric Keller said at the team’s media day Tuesday.
“There’s a lot of coaches out there that are talking about winning this, winning that. These guys listen to that. With social media and all of that available, they hear all of that stuff. Nothing goes unnoticed,” Keller said.. “It drives us. That’s simply what it does. The more of that we hear and the more talking that goes on, the more we put our nose down and work.”
Wis.-Whitewater is No. 1 in the preseason poll, while Iowa Conference rivals Coe and Loras are No. 5 and No. 13.
Wartburg has won 22 straight IIAC titles. The group trying to make it 23 is sort of an unknown at this point, having lost eight seniors, six of whom were All-Americans and three of whom won NCAA individual titles.
Mark Pineiro, one of two returning 2014 NCAA qualifiers, is ranked No. 8 at 149 pounds.
“Mark Pineiro is a natural leader just by the way he works,” Keller said. “That guy is a hard, hard working guy.”
Connor Campo is the other national wrestler returning, and he’ll be moving down from 141 to 133.
Drew Wagenhoffer, an All-American in 2012, opens the year ranked No. 9 at 157.
After that, and even at the weights with returners, it’s too wide open for Keller to even pinpoint a starting lineup.
“There’s not a single spot that’s solidified and there’s not a single spot that, ‘hey, man, this guy’s coming back at this spot.’ It doesn’t work that way,” Keller said.
“In the room, there’s battles going on every single day. One day this guy’s getting the best of this guy and the next day, the other guy’s getting it.”
Nine freshmen, six of whom were state champions in high school, give the Knights quality depth and could crack the starting lineup.
“This year, more than any other year, they’re coming in and not wrestling like freshmen,” Keller said. “They’re wrestling like we’re a part of this program, we’re a part of this team and we’re gonna battle, which is exactly what you want them to do.”
The season opens for the Knights on Saturday at the Luther Open. The first home event is Dec. 13, a dual with Cornell.