Despite all the hype surrounding Hartland’s wrestling program as the new season approaches, coach Todd Cheney wanted to make one thing abundantly clear when talking on the phone following the Eagles first official practice session in mid-November.
“Obviously,” the Hartland coach said, “Brighton is the defending state champs. Until someone beats them, they got that title.”
The Bulldogs enter the 2015-16 season as the reigning Division 1 champs for the first time in school history, having defeated the Eagles in a 31-25 nail-biter that decided the state championship last March at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.
Yet it’s Hartland that comes into the new season with the No. 1 distinction.
Like Brighton was a season ago, Hartland is now at the top of everyone’s preseason list as the team most likely to win it all. The Eagles are ranked first by MichiganGrappler.com in Division 1 and 40th in the nation in InterMat’s Fab 50 Team Rankings — one of three Michigan schools on the list and the only D1 team.
The buzz encompassing the Eagles is palpable. And as Cheney said, it should be, given they are returning four All-Staters in Reece Hughes, Garnet Potter, Sage Castillo and Logan Vish as well as slew of other state qualifiers in Noah Lopez, Lucas LaForge, Andrew Spisz and Milford transfer Brandon Krol, who will be eligible at midseason.
“On paper, we look good,” said Cheney, whose team lost two significant pieces in Jacob Gorial and Jacob Economou, but otherwise maintained the entire squad, which came a match away from beating Brighton for the state title.
“But obviously paper doesn’t win a darn thing. We got a lot of work to do, especially because a lot of our kids have grown and jumped weight classes. We got a lot of leadership back and that should make it fun. But the expectations are obviously high as always, but this year things are a little bit different.”
In years past, the Eagles have been expected to contend. Last year, they had a high ranking and most figured they’d at least make it to the state quarterfinals or semis. That’s become the expectation most years as, after all, they’re five-time state runners-up under Cheney.
But perhaps never have they been pegged as a team almost certain to win a championship.
That adds a whole different element to each matchup this season, Cheney said.
“This year, we switched roles. We’re expected to be there,” he said. “It’s a different animal when you don’t have to go prove something every night (like last year). Now, we’re on the hit list.”
Although having dropped to fourth in the preseason rankings thanks to several key departures including D1 individual state champion Nick Brish, Brighton head coach Tony Greathouse knows his team is going to get a similar treatment.
Each team will be gunning to knock off Brighton. Thus is the life of a defending state champion.
But even he admits the Bulldogs are flying a bit under-the-radar — at least compared to last year.
“I think that because we graduated such a big group of guys that the pressure, I don’t think is really that big for some of these guys,” said Greathouse, who team also lost the likes of Kyle Bohnsack, Ryan Salmon, Tanner Maschke, Beau Mourer and Jose Ramos.
“Even though we’re returning state champs, I don’t think a lot of people expect us to be that good again. They know we lost a lot so they don’t really know what to expect. But even last year, we didn’t focus on what we were ranked and we worried about wrestling and competing really hard and competing through the course of the year. Our goal is to be our best at the first or second week of February.”
While Brighton might not be quite as loaded as 2014-15, its still stocked with talent.
It returns Jackson Renicker, Grant Morison, Lee Grabowski and Eric Conquest — among others — which is more than enough to make them a top team in the state. Of course, reigning individual state champion at the 215-pound weight class, Luke Ready, is back to lead the team as well.
With another year under his belt, great things are expected. Ready won’t be the least bit under-the-radar.
“He’s got a target on his back,” Greathouse said.
Howell and Pinckney are just a step behind, as they haven’t established themselves as state powerhouses, but both still hope to be competitive in the West and make strides to set themselves up in the future.
“Right now we look like we’re gonna be a solid team,” Howell coach Joe Adam said. “We have a couple holes in our lineup that we don’t have a body to fill and we’ll work around that. But it always makes it tough wrestling in the conference that we do. I anticipate us being a competitive, hard-working team.”