The West Virginia University wrestling team opened fall practice with a squad intent on building on the many successes of last year's team. That group captured the school's 500th career victory, earned a second consecutive regular season Eastern Wrestling League (EWL) title, qualified the most wrestlers (nine) in school history for the NCAA tournament and matched the highest ranking in school history (fifth). Those accomplishments only served to whet the appetite of a coach and a team who know they are capable of even more in 2003-04.

Coach Craig Turnbull has collected 212 wins as he enters his 26th season at the helm of the Mountaineers. He will be guiding a team that includes six returning NCAA qualifiers that were part of a group that earned a 17rh place finish at the NCAA Championships. Turnbull knows that to improve on that finish he needs improved performances and leadership from those experienced veterans and for capable newcomers to step forward.

"I cannot remember a year in which we had so few seniors," admits Turnbull. "That is an interesting statement in itself because generally you assume leadership is derived from your seniors. Sometimes I think we narrow whew the leadership comes from if we vote captains early. Leadership comes from a variety of places. Often we don't vote for our captains until after the season. At the end of the season, the voting is truly based on who earned it, not who they thought could do it."

"Our team goals do not change a whole lot each year," says Turnbull. "Maybe the ability to reach them changes. Obviously, each year the ranking of the team is different. We expect to win the EWL dual meet and EWL tournament. Another goal is to send as many guys as possible to the national tournament. I think we have some potential national champions and All-America candidates. As a team, we would like to finish in the top 10 at the NCAAs. How that all works out depends on a lot of things."

Coach Turnbull is looking to junior Greg Jones (174/184) 10 provide both leadership and score points. He begins the year as the nation's top-ranked wrestler at 174 pounds in polls released by InterMat.com and Amateur Wrestling News (AWN). He won the 2002 NCAA title as a freshman and enjoyed a tremendous regular season as a sophomore. A year ago, he became the first WVU wrestler to finish the regular season undefeated, captured his second EWL title and won an amazing 46 consecutive matches. Jones was an upset victim in the NCAA Tournament and returns focused on regaining his title.

Included in this group of six returning NCAA qualifiers is junior Brent Miller (HWT). Last season he was the EWL runner-up and notched 22 wins in becoming a two-time NCAA qualifier. Miller is ranked fifth in the nation by AWN.

Also returning as an example for young squad members is junior Ryan Wilman (184). An NCAA qualifier last year and winner of 25 matches, he holds down a No. 5 ranking in the opening AWN poll.

A pair of sophomores is being counted on to build off very successful first-year seasons. Matt Leba (157) and Seth Lisa (133) both registered solid freshman campaigns. They shared WVU Rookie of The Year honors while wrestling like seasoned veterans. Lebe posted a 19-1 1 record, was an EWL runner-up and earned an NCAA tournament bid. Lisa capped his 28-8 rookie year by also earning an NCAA tournament invite. He will face new challengers this season, moving up to 133 to represent the Mountaineers.

The final returning NCAA qualifier is Brandon Lauer (141). The junior turned in an All- American performance at 133 lest year. He has won 37 matches in his first two years. Unfortunately, off season surgery will force Lauer to take a medical redshirt year and miss the 2003-04 season.

"Last year we were inexperienced in some weights," explains Turnbull. "At the same time, guys like Seth Lisa stepped up and wrestled like veterans. We will again put guys with little or no experience in the lineup. Whether the goals are attainable might not apply to the experienced guys, but more on how quickly the younger guys adjust."

To compete for team championships, contributions are required from all the weight classes. The deepest position on the WVU roster is at the starting 125-pound weight group. With Seth Lisa moving up one weight class, the Mountaineers have eight wrestlers hoping to fill the void. Trevor Braxton, Casey Brewster, Troy Forte, Shane Grogg and Nathan Kendjorsky will battle for the number one spot. Four others vying for time on the mat include Teddy Adams, Steven Calpo, Jamie Muir and Greg White.

Lisa will be asked to contribute at the 133 slot. Pushing him in practice will be three freshmen, Trevor Braxton, Nathan Lingle and Nino Paglia.

Turnbull must find a 141 replacement for departed All-American Shane Cunanan. The contest for this opening may continue throughout the season. Expected to challenge for the position are senior Brian Floyd, transfer Joe Clarke and freshmen Eric Colpo and Mike Goethe. Clarke, a highly touted transfer from Princeton, could get the nod depending on how well he adjusts to the competition.

The 149 slot will be challenged for by senior Mike Torriero and junior Drew Joseph. Clarke could challenge for time at this weight as well.

Lebe will be tough to dislodge at 157. Making that effort will be sophomores Eric Mullen and Douglas Studenic and freshmen Bobby Bilder and Nathan Pickens.

Competition is wide open in the 165 weight group. Sophomore Derek George will try 10 fend off heralded freshman Zac Fryling. T.R. Chinn and Brendan Raedy will also push for time on the mat as well.

Jones is expected to again challenge for a national title at 174. Freshman Jonathan Tranquillo and Mike Wojcik will haw an opportunity to gain valuable experience in training with one of the nation's top wrestlers.

At 184, Wilman will have to hold off new competition from freshman arrivals Jeff Courtney, Jonathan Crimeni and James Hardwick.

Courtney could also be competing for time at 197 against Matt Daddino. A transfer from Hofsra, Daddino won 32 matches in two previous seasons at the New York school.

Securing the heavyweight position is junior Miller. The talented big man owns a career record of 44-25 and plans on making a third trip to the NCAA tournament. Pushing Miller to that goal will be freshman Pat Barrentine.

WVU again boasts one of the toughest schedules in the nation. West Virginia will play host six times during the 2003-2004 season, including dual meets with Pitt and Penn State. In addition to the grueling EWL slate, the Mountaineers will also be competing in the NCWA National Duals, Midlands Tournament, Sun Devil Duals and Navy Classic.

"I feel good about the schedule," says Turnbull. "It doesn't change too much. We have four major tournaments which allows our guys to see wrestlers who will be at the nationals come March."

Turnbull believes that again qualifying as many as nine wrestlers for the NCAA tournament is not out of the question, but a lot has to go right.

"I am not trying to figure those things out this early. We have a map and right now we are just getting ready for our journey," says Turnbull. "Qualifying nine guys would be great, but I can't really predict a number. I would like to believe that we could send nine guys again. The season still needs to unfold as we look at how our guys are developing and what level they are competing at. The potential is there to take seven or more guys to the national tournament."

Last year's WVU wrestling team caught the attention of the nation's observers. This month the team was tabbed the nation's 15th best team in the preseason poll released by AWN. Their expectations are no higher than those being set by Coach Craig Turnbull and a team hungry for more in 2004.