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A much-changed and much-improved Harvard wrestling team will open the 1996-97 season Saturday at the East Stroudsburg Open.
The Crimson will hit the mat with a highly touted freshman recruiting class, a fresh face at assistant coach, and a particularly high set of expectations for the new campaign.
The 1995-96 season was a watershed of sorts for the Crimson. Harvard, which finished 6-10 overall and 1-4 in the Ivy League, jumped from a near-worst 13th to a competitive sixth in the EIWA standings and saw three wrestlers qualify for the NCAA tournament.
This time around, the Crimson incorporates more significant changes and will aim higher.
"This is the most improved team in the EIWA," senior Tom Costello said. "Our goal is a top-five finish and we're shooting for the top three."
Most salient to the team's prospects may well be the contributions of its youngest members. Head Coach Jay Weiss's freshman recruits, ranked 14th in preseason evaluations, could have a key impact on the squad and plug some crucial holes in the lineup.
"Our freshman are a very talented group," sophomore Ed Mosley said. "They have a lot of potential and show a great work ethic."
The additions of 124-pounder Brett Williams, 134-pounder Tommy Kiler and 150-pounder Joe Killar will mean greater depth at the already solid lower weight divisions.
At the higher classes, though, the Crimson's Achilles heel, the loss of 177-pounder Fran Volpe frustrates the organization's excellent recruiting efforts.
Volpe was expected to fill a gap at the upper end of the scale, but a lingering neck injury aggravated during the football season will sideline the two-sport wonder.
Additionally, Harvard must cope with the departure of junior Dustin DeNunzio, an NCAA qualifier and third-place finisher at EIWAs in the 126-pound class.
DeNunzio will sit out the '96-'97 campaign, training and wrestling individually and returning in '97-'98.
Finally, the Crimson will incorporate several weight shifts in an attempt to balance its distribution and allow its freshmen to compete.
Junior Joel Friedman, an NCAA qualifier at the 134-pound level last season, will wrestle at 142. Junior Adam Griesemer will move up from 142 to 150 and sophomore Curt Anderson will wrestle at 167.
In the coach's corner, former Russian Olympian Granit Taropin will join Weiss as an assistant, bringing a wealth of European-style experience and wrestling knowledge.
"Granit brings a great knowledge of technique to the team," Friedman said. "And it's really valuable to have two different perspectives from our coaches."
Taropin's hiring, coupled with committed and successful recruiting, imply an intense push for excellence this season on the part of the Crimson.
Building on last year's ground-breaking achievements, Harvard seeks both individual and team progress.
Expect NCAA qualifiers Friedman and defending EIWA champion at 158 pounds Mosley to repeat, and to better their tournament performances. Friedman dropped his first two matches at last year's tournament and Mosley went 1-2.
Look also for NCAA potential in junior Jim Butera, who nearly missed a tournament berth last year and was a top-10 finisher at 118 pounds in the EIWAs.
"Individually, several guys will have great success," Costello said. "As a team, however, there are certain holes in the lineup."
Indeed, Volpe's injury and nagging open slots at the heavier weight classes, particularly the 177-pound and heavyweight divisions, may impede Harvard's team successes this season.
The Crimson should challenge for the EIWA top five but will have difficulty competing with front runners Penn and Lehigh, more rounded teams than bottom-heavy Harvard.
Nonetheless, the Crimson's infusion of new talent and its off-season adjustments spell a distinct confidence.
"Basically, our goal is, every time we go to the mat, to make the other team feel like they're going through war," Mosley said.
The Crimson fires the opening salvoes Saturday at East Stroudsburg. Don't be surprised to see some fireworks this year.
After East Stroudsburg the team will spend much of its season testing itself in invitationals across the country. Come mid-February, however, the team competes against Ivy League foes Cornell, Columbia and Brown at home.
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