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Mike Fickell was in the nation's top 20 at 197 pounds all last year. The senior is now one of Penn's co-captains. (Will Burhop/DP File Photo)

For most teams, losing a dominant force like NCAA Champion Brett Matter and replacing him with a plethora of freshman would indicate that a year of rebuilding had begun. This is not the case for the Penn wrestling team. The Quakers, who are coming off one of the most successful years in school history, will be trying to live up to the high expectations that came from last year's ninth place finish at the NCAA Championships. The Penn program was further bolstered when Brandon Slay, who graduated in 1998, walked away with the gold medal in Sydney. "One of the things about success in previous years is that it garners more confidence as other athletes aspire to new things and look at the contributions that their team members have made," Penn coach Roger Reina said. "I really see this year's freshman as a new wave or a new higher level of success that we have the potential to attain in the coming years." Building on the success that Penn has had lately is clearly the task for the Quakers this year. Penn has been nothing short of unbeatable in the Ivy League of late and equally impressive on the national scene. Over the last six years Penn has compiled an incredible .971 winning percentage in the Ivies while walking away with five outright titles and sharing another. Over that same time period, Penn has also won four Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association titles. If Penn is going to live up to its expectations, it will have to rely heavily on senior co-captain Yoshi Nakamura. Nakamura, who won the 1999 EIWA Championship at 157 pounds by defeating All-American Chris Ayers, started his season out just the way he wanted by being named the Most Outstanding Wrestler in the Keystone Classic last weekend at the Palestra. "He has matured in a number of ways that will help him contribute individually and as a team captain," Reina said. Nakamura will clearly not be able to carry Penn himself, and with the talent that this year's Quakers possess, there is no reason he should have to. Co-captain Mike Fickell is coming off a 1999 season in which he never dropped out of the top 20 in the nation. Fickell, wrestling at 197, won his division at the Keystone Classic this past weekend. "I think our captains are obviously the people that our coaching staff and the team are looking to for leadership," Reina said. "But we want to get to where everyone on the team takes a leadership role and everyone is thinking about the team goals." Another key for Penn in the 2000-2001 season will be how well the team's highly regarded freshman class adjusts to the collegiate level. With 17 freshmen on the roster, as compared to only four seniors, the Quakers' youngest members will be expected to contribute early and often. "We know we have some freshmen, but a lot of these guys have not only phenomenal accomplishments but also a lot of experience," Reina said. "Mason [Lenhard] competed at the world championships and Mike Faust won the junior national championships in both styles, and for comparison sakes, Brandon Slay didn't even place in the junior nationals." Penn will have its first major test of the season on December 29-30 in the Midlands Open at Northwestern. This tournament, which always draws some of the nation's best, will be an opportunity for Penn's young wrestlers to prove that they deserve being called the fourth-best recruiting class in the nation. "Midlands is a mini-NCAA Championship because two-thirds of the eventual NCAA champions usually compete there," Reina said. "Because it's an open tournament we will even see some Olympic hopefuls and people coming back after graduation." After the Midlands, Penn will have no time to relax since its next meet is at home against national powerhouse Michigan, which finished 13th nationally last year. "Getting Michigan at the Palestra will be great," Reina said. "We barely lost to them in Ann Arbor last year, so we are excited to get them here." Other key dates for the Quakers include March 3-4 at the EIWA Championships and the NCAA Championships March 15-17. "Our athletes walk into these settings a lot more at ease and confident in their preparation than ever before," Reina said. "We know that not only do we belong in the top tier of teams, but that we can be successful against them. When you have a recruiting class ranked fourth in the country, you expect a great season."

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