Five returning All-Americans. Preseason national title contenders. Disappointing down the stretch. All three are perfectly good descriptions of last year’s Michigan wrestling team.

“I think we were banged up at the end of the year. Foley (Dowd) and (Matt) Brink’s knees were in bad shape at the end of the year,” Michigan coach Joe McFarland said. “It was pretty obvious that Brink wasn’t 100 percent after he came back. Andy (Hrovat) was also having some problems with his back.”

Led by seniors Otto Olson and Hrovat, Michigan looked impressive through the entire season by beating wrestling powerhouses like Iowa and Oklahoma and with Olson and Hrovat finishing the regular season with No. 1 rankings in their respective weight classes.

With Michigan ranked second behind seemingly unbeatable Minnesota, expectations were high for the postseason. But results were mediocre at best. The Wolverines took third at the Big Ten Tournament and a dismal ninth at the NCAA Championships.

“I think a lot of us were burned out toward the end of last year,” said Michigan 157/165-pounder Mike Kulczycki. “I think we might have peaked too early too.”

With a disappointing season behind them, the Wolverines, ranked seventh in Wrestling International Newsmagazine’s preseason poll, once again starts with a talented roster. Olson and Hrovat are gone, but the Wolverines return All-Americans Ryan Bertin and Kyle Smith, while also adding one of the nation’s finest recruiting classes.

“We have a real good team with a lot of experience. A lot of guys have been to the national championships,” Kulczycki said. “I think we’ll surprise some people this year.”

Surprise is exactly what the Wolverines will have to do to make a run at the Big Ten and national titles. Michigan – ranked in the top three nationally most of last year – is not even ranked amongst the top 3 in the conference in the latest preseason polls. Perennial powerhouses No. 1 Minnesota and No. 3 Iowa, along with No. 6 Ohio State are all ranked above Michigan in the W.I.N. poll.

At 125 pounds, 2001 All-American A.J Grant should reclaim his spot as Michigan’s starter. With Fresno State’s Stephen Abas gone, 125 is wide open this year, and anyone, including Grant, has a shot at the national title.

Foley Dowd is likely to be Michigan’s 133-pounder this season, and he hopes to rebound after a disappointing season last year in one of the Big Ten’s toughest weight classes. Dowd has to battle 2002 NCAA finalist Ryan Lewis from Minnesota and All-Americans Kevin Black and Cliff Moore from Wisconsin and Iowa, respectively.

The weight classes from 141 to 165 are where Michigan has a big mix-up this season. Redshirt freshman Ryan Churella and Clark Forward were originally supposed to be the top contenders for the 141 spot, but with Kulczycki – previously predicted to be Michigan’s 149-pounder – unable to make weight, Churella will slide into the 149 spot, leaving Forward at 141. Forward struggled with injuries last season, but should be a force in the Big Ten in a wide-open 141-pound weight class. Churella is a great young talent who should fill the 149-pound spot well.

A bigger Kulczycki will have to wrestle off Bertin for the spot at 157 pounds and the loser of that series will challenge senior Pat Owen for the starting role at 165 pounds.

With Olson and Hrovat gone, some fresh faces will fill the 174- and 184-pound spots in Michigan’s roster. Redshirt freshmen R.J Boudro and Willie Breyer are the top candidates to fill the two spots, but each will have his hands full as both weight classes are extremely deep this year in the Big Ten. Purdue’s Ryan Lange (fifth place at 2002 Big Ten Championships), and Iowa’s Tyler Nixt (Big Ten runner-up) return at 174-pounds, while All-American’s Damion Hahn from Minnesota and Jessman Smith from Iowa are back at 184.

Smith is Michigan’s best hope for a national champion. With wrestling icon Cael Sanderson gone from Iowa State, Smith, Lehigh’s Jon Trenge and Nebraska’s Justin Ruiz (fifth place at 2002 NCAA championships) should be the top three national title contenders at 197 pounds.

Redshirt freshman Greg Wagner should replace Matt Brink at heavyweight. The class is stacked in the Big Ten this season with the top three nationally ranked wrestlers – Ohio State’s Tommy Rowlands, Iowa’s Steve Mocco and Minnesota’s Garrett Lowney – all hailing from Big Ten schools.

As the 2002-03 wrestling season kicks off around the country in the coming weeks, Michigan hopes the combination of its seasoned veterans and its impressive young talent will be enough to keep the Wolverines among the elite.

“I think our whole team is excited and looking forward to the season getting under way,” McFarland said.

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