LA CROSSE, Wis. -- Marty Nichols wants to “stir things up.”

Those are his words and he didn’t hesitate to say it Thursday as the six Ithaca wrestlers he brought to the Division III Championship worked out on the colorful mats spread across the La Crosse Center floor.

The Bombers’ 16th-year head coach is hoping to “create a little excitement” this weekend in a tournament that, while not lacking scintillating moments, has been without much intrigue lately. In fact, it’s practically been written in stone that either Wartburg or Augsburg will waltz away with the title. Compelling as that rivalry itself has been, it’s happened that way for 15 consecutive years, leaving a stale taste with some.

The last time the team title was brought home by anyone other than the Knights or Auggies? That would be 1994, when Ithaca took it back to the East Coast. Nicholls was an assistant coach on that squad. He was on the mat competing when the Bombers won back-to-back championships in 1989-90.

Brackets | Qualifiers
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Breaking down the contenders

That came during a stretch when 17 times in 19 years a team east of the Mississippi River won the title. Then the Augies and Knights took over. 

From the way his wrestlers talk, Nicholls has them believing it’s possible for that streak to come to an end this weekend.

“The team race is almost the No. 1 goal that supercedes a lot of the individual aspect of [the tournament],” Seth Ecker said. That’s a resounding statement of belief in Nicholls' plans as Ecker is a returning national champion looking for another run at the 133-pound individual title.

“Obviously to get that you need to achieve a lot of the individual goals, which is probably why it supercedes it. The team title kind of means more, I think, because it shows how you came together as a group, as a unit. You had a common goal. There’s 10 individual champions each year but only one team champion.”

Winning the team title would mean more than just having the honor of knocking off the reigning kings. For Ecker, it’s about pride in his state and region.

Midwestern teams are seen as powerhouses on the mat, but Ecker and Nicholls are quick to point out that Pennsylvania is a hotbed for wrestling and provides talent to many top programs – not just in Division III, but also Division I programs like Oklahoma and Iowa. The Bombers have nine on the roster from Pennsylvania, including Ecker and Jeremy Stierly, both natives of Pottstown. Stierly is a two-time national finalist who moved up to 149 this season.

According to Ecker, who openly voiced his pride in being an East Coast wrestler, the difference is what those guys do on the mat once they get to college.

“It’s kind of frustrating to see the titles keep going to the Midwest because you see a lot of the guys on their teams are from the East Coast,” Ecker said. “It’s kind of like people have misconception … that the Midwest is better than the East Coast, which is the feeder program and where their wrestlers are coming from. So I don’t see that as the case.

There’s no doubt about it that Wartburg and Augsburg are the top competitors, top teams to beat ... they’re who you’re thinking about when you think about winning the title.
-- Ithaca 133-pounder Seth Ecker

“But they take it to the next level in college. There’s no doubt about it that Wartburg and Augsburg are the top competitors, top teams to beat. And for us, for Ithaca, they’re who you’re thinking about when you think about winning the title because they’ve done it consistently they showed their ability and drive to do it.”

It won’t be easy, but Nicholls has Ithaca believing there’s a chance.

It’s hard not to believe when Ecker is the top seed at 133, one of two Bombers along with 174-pound newcomer Jules Doliscar, a rare junior college transfer on an East Coast squad, who tops a bracket. Stierly missed most of the year with two injuries that limited him to just nine matches at his new weight, but he is still the No. 4 seed. Three other Bombers are in La Crosse, Wis., for the championship this weekend. Only three teams -- Wartburg (10), Augsburg (8) and Coe (8) -- have more competitors in the field.

The Bombers aren’t just about depth. They also have the quality to challenge for the crown.

Nicholls has done the math in his head, at least as much speculation will allow. He’s looked at the brackets and has an idea of where he thinks his guys can earn points -- or more importantly keep Wartburg and Augsburg from earning them. Now, guys need to win matches. Two Bombers face Wartburg wrestlers in the first round. Two others face Auggies.

Win those matches and the field is evened greatly. The hard part is not looking ahead.

"You can get caught up in this guy beat this guy, and this guy beat that guy, or you can just go out there and wrestle," Stierly said. "That’s what I think we should do, and I’m going to try to do. Doesn’t matter where we are, who’s seeded where. I guess it’s good to have some of those guys early to knock them off and even up the race." 

With 10 wrestlers in the tournament this week, Wartburg is going to be hard to overcome. Some believe the Knights could tie the NCAA record – which is owned by the 2003 Wartburg squad – with 10 All-Americans. 

Still, it's a whole new season.

“I think we have everything we need, everyone just has to perform the way we can,” Stierly said. “Last year we had a great set of guys go, and this year we have two less, but last year Augsburg took five [wrestlers to nationals] and took second [as a team]. We have six guys and everyone can be in the finals. If everyone goes out and wrestles his best, we have everything we need to do it. I feel confident and think we can.”

Stierly’s coach agrees.

“Our guys are good, they’re looking better than they did last year at this time,” Nicholls said. “Hopefully it’ll carry over. It depends on how they respond in the first round, if we can get some momentum going. Win a few of those first matches and keep moving forward.

“Everyone’s got a chance to win [the team title]. There’s probably five teams that have a chance to win, it just depends on how things fall. If you can stay right around that top five, you always have a chance. And that’s all we can ask for is to have a chance.”