Wartburg started the 2011-12 wrestling campaign with plenty of question marks. Six new starters were set to take the mat for the Division III powerhouse.
A handful of other DIII programs, including Augsburg, UW-La Crosse, Coe and Ithaca, saw an opportunity.

By the time the 2012 Division III Championship ended in March, however, the Knights had four individual titlists and 141.5 points. Three of those newbies won individual titles as the Knights out-distanced second-place Augsburg by 55 points.

SETTING THE STANDARD

Wartburg scored 141.5 points in the 2012 team race. The DIII record 166.5 points in 2003 by Wartburg. The Knights also own the second and third highest totals – 156.5 in 2004 and 145.5 in 2006.

“We always set a high standard,” Miller said. “At this level your work never ends. To be where we are requires a lot of work and records are a product of that work.”

And guess what? The Wartburg express is not slowing down any time soon.

Jim Miller and Eric Keller lose three All-Americans, including three-time champion Byron Tate, a 197-pounder who compiled a 138-14 career record. Bradley Banks, a runner-up at 174 pounds, and Dylan Azinger, fourth at 184, are also gone.

“[Wartburg] isn’t going away any time soon,” Tate said in March. “When the season started everybody talked about us having to replace a bunch of guys. People don’t see what goes on inside our room. It’s no surprise when somebody [at Wartburg] gets their shot and wins a lot of matches.”

In his first season on the varsity, Kenneth Anderson finished 33-2 and won a 125-pound title. He will be a junior in 2012-13. Kodie Silvestri was 22-2 and champion at 141 pounds, knocking off UW-La Crosse’s Bebeto Yewah, a two-time champion, in the title bout. Silvestri will be a senior next season.

Landon Williams finished 34-5 as a sophomore 165-pounder. His season concluded with an NCAA title.

Throw in 149-pounder Drew Wagenhoffer, a freshman who finished sixth at 149, and 285-pounder Ryan Fank, who was fourth as a sophomore, and the Knights return five All-Americans. Don’t forget Thomas Mirocha, a fourth-place finisher at 133 two seasons ago.

Nothing is ever guaranteed. But the odds of beating Wartburg may be slim and none in 2013.

BACK FOR MORE

Six NCAA champions return from 2012. Joining Anderson, Silvestri, Williams and Johnson are Wisconsin-Oshkosh’s Nazar Kulchytskyy and Ohio Northern’s Kyle Kwiat.

Kwiat was fifth as a sophomore and beat Wartburg’s Bradley Banks in the 174-pound final in 2012. The Bloomville, Ohio, product was 39-1 as a junior and will be one four All-Americans back at the weight class.

Kulchytskyy had a spectacular 45-2 sophomore campaign that finished with a win over Ponce in the 157-pound finals, the only loss for the Auggie senior all season.
Only one wrestler who lost in the 2012 finals returns – 125-pounder Nathan Fitzenreider of North Central College in Illinois. The senior-to-be finished 34-5 as a junior, falling to Anderson in the finals.

“On paper we have a chance to be pretty good again. But that’s on paper,” said Miller, the veteran Wartburg coach who has been a part of nine NCAA titles since 1996. “We lose some really good members of our team. You don’t really replace a guy like Byron Tate.

“It’s pretty much business as usual around here. Our goals never change -- we plan to compete for a championship every year.”

Of the top 10 finishers in the team race in 2012, only Wisconsin-La Crosse returns more than two All-Americans. The Eagles, who were third in 2012, lose Yewah but will welcome back 133-pounder Adam Sheley, 165-pounder Kevin O’Brien and heavyweight Billy Mayer. Sheley, who will be a senior, has finished in the top six the last two seasons.

Both Augsburg and Coe will have plenty of new faces next season.

The Auggies bring back 285-pound champion Chad Johnson, who finished 36-1 as a sophomore, and 141-pounder Will Keeter, who was third in 2012. However, Tony Valek (149), Orlando Ponce (157) and Brad Baus (197) will be tough to replace. Ponce lost in an NCAA final for a third consecutive year as a senior while Valek was a two-time national finalist.

Coe loses four All-Americans from a squad that finished third. Returning will be 174-pounder Scott King and 125-pounder Jimmy Gotto, both top-eight finishers.

Also hard hit by graduation will be Ithaca, losing two champions – Seth Ecker (133) and Jeremy Stierly (149). Julius Doliscar, who was seventh at 174 as a junior, is the only returning All-American for the Bombers.

TCNJ and Elmhurst each bring back two All-Americans.

But heading into the offseason, the question remains: How is anybody going to knock Wartburg off its throne?