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Mar. 10, 1997

Spartans Look to Reach New Heights in '97-98

Just how far has the revitalized Michigan State wrestling program come under sixth-year head coach Tom Minkel? Consider the following:

  • Last year's seventh-place finish at the NCAA Championships on the heels of a third-place showing in 1995 gave MSU its first back-to-back top 10 performances since the Spartans placed third and second nationally in 1971 and 1972.

  • By finishing second and third in the Big Ten the past two years, the Green and White turned in a feat unmatched since consecutive second-place efforts in 1983 and 1984.

  • The Spartans have boasted 10 different All-Americans in the last two seasons.

  • Last year's 118-pound Big Ten Champion David Morgan had to wait his turn to wrestle while Kelvin Jackson won the national crown at that weight in 1995; 190-pound Big Ten Champ Brian Picklo made the team as a walk-on in 1992 and didn't even see regular mat time until last year.

  • And, despite losing four starters from last season's team, the program has maintained enough respect and talent to enter this year rated No. 3 in the Amateur Wrestling News preseason poll.

And yet, those inside the Spartan wrestling room believe there's nowhere to go but up, continuing to construct a national power out of a program that had posted six straight lower-division Big Ten finishes prior to Minkel's arrival in 1992.

"Overall, there is more talent in the room than we've had at any time since I've been here, so that's reason for enthusiasm," Minkel said. "If that talent stays with it for four years and continues to improve and work hard, we can move to the next level."

Having reached varying degrees of national prominence and exposure already, the next level would be a Big Ten crown and NCAA championship, lofty rings that four returning All-Americans hope to help an otherwise young team grasp.

Morgan, a junior, is back to defend his conference crown at 118 pounds and improve upon his third-place national finish, while senior 190-pounder Picklo is the reigning Big Ten king who posted a fifth-place finish at the NCAAs. Senior Erich Harvey enters the season rated as the country's No. 1 177-pound grappler following last year's fifth-place effort, and he should set numerous MSU records including the career mark for victories. Also back in the fold this year is 1994 and 1995 All-American Chad Bailey at 158 pounds.

"The next level is to seriously contend for the Big Ten and national title," said Minkel, which is virtually the same thing, as seven conference teams enter the season ranked among the nation's top 20. "We've had pretty good talent, but it was the exceptional work ethic and outstanding pressure performances getting us to the point we've been at the last two years. Now, we need to recruit the best wrestlers and instill the same work habits in them to realize the championship level we're aiming for."

With the return of Morgan, Bailey, Harvey and Picklo, MSU figures to rack up the points in various tournaments throughout the season, including the Big Ten and NCAA meet. However, the loss of four regulars to the lineup will place and increased emphasis on several newcomers during the dual meet season.

"We'll be a particularly strong tournament team with those four wrestlers plus Marco Sanchez (former JC National Champion) at heavyweight. All are proven wrestlers in big meets," Minkel said. "Our dual meet success will depend on how quickly the newcomers develop. This will be as young a team as we've had out there in awhile."

Following is a weight-by-weight look at the 1996-97 Spartan wrestlers.

118--Two words: David Morgan. After a stellar year that saw the All-American post a 44-3 record, MSU can expect fast starts to dual meets once again. "We've dominated this class for three years with Kelvin Jackson for two years, and now Morgan. Morgan was disappointed with his third-place finish at the NCAAs, and that will motivate him. It's a great luxury to start every meet with guys like him and Jackson, who win 95 percent of the time," Minkel said.

126--Gone is 1995 All-American Brian Bolton, and a pair of redshirt freshmen will vie for time in his place. "Jason Nusbaum and Ezra Kramer will compete at 126. We'll be young, but both are solid wrestlers," said Minkel.

134--Jed Kramer, Ezra's brother, graduated after manning this class last year, but sophomore Issac Miller could be the perfect replacement. "Issac Miller will surprise people at 134. He's a gifted athlete who works hard and we expect an outstanding season from him," said Minkel.

142--Once again, the Spartans must fill a void left by graduation here as 1996 eighth-place NCAA finisher and All-American Phil Judge has departed. "This is another weight where two redshirt freshmen will vie for action," Minkel said. "Sam Hakim and Matt Bishop both had experience in the wrestling room last year and are ready for competition."

150--Redshirt freshman Adam Elderkin was a two-time State Champion at Cedar Springs H.S. and is the top candidate for duties here. "We're looking for him to have a lot of success during his career here, starting with this winter," added Minkel.

158--Senior Chad Bailey returns to the lineup following a year off. A transfer from Bloomsburg (Pa.), he is a two-time All-American whose last wrestling action saw him cap a 37-8 season with a seventh-place finish at the NCAAs in 1995. "His return will be a tremendous help to us. He's as exciting a wrestler as we've ever had," said Minkel.

167--Joel Morissette had been a fixture at this weight for the past four seasons, and now redshirt frosh Will Hill looks to fill his shoes. "Will Hill is a wrestler who shows tremendous potential for us, and he'll battle with fifth-year senior Ralph Conte for time at this weight. Conte (a transfer from Navy) is a solid, experienced wrestler," Minkel said.

177--Senior Erich Harvey posted 40 wins last season en route to an All-America season, and has his sights set higher this year. "Erich will set all kinds of records this year. As the No. 1 ranked preseason wrestler at his weight, he's a legitimate national title contender," said Minkel.

190--Senior All-American Brian Picklo won 39 matches a year ago, and his 17-1 Big Ten record led all Spartans. "Brian Picklo also will contend for the national title after winning the Big Ten last year in his first year of national experience. Redshirt freshman Nick Muzashvili will back up both Erich at 177 and Brian at 190. He gives us great depth, and he won the Espoir (20-and-under) national freestyle championship this summer," commented Minkel.

275--MSU is pinning its hopes on junior Marco Sanchez as the dual meet closer, coming off knee rehabilitation. "He won the Junior College National Championship in 1995, and we were counting on him last year before he blew out his knee," said Minkel. "We expect him back 100 percent, and he's a very strong, experienced wrestler."

Senior Jason Peterson also returns after posting a 16-18 mark last season.

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