Sending eight wrestlers to the national championships would be a great accomplishment for any wrestling squad, especially if that squad calls the Big Ten its home. However, head coach Barry Davis believes Wisconsin needs to improve on the eight wrestlers it sent to Kansas City last season.

“We’ve got to get 10 guys this year. Eight is good, but you are still leaving two guys behind, and that’s part of your team,” Davis said. “You’re leaving two of your warriors back. We’ve got to get all 10 guys there, and all 10 guys have to score points. That’s the bottom line.”

Last year, the team jumped out to a 9-1 start before losing seven straight duals during the Big Ten season. To realize what the level of competition in the Big Ten for wrestling is like, you must consider that more than 20 wrestlers from the conference finished in the top three at last year’s national championships. The conference consistently churns out Olympians and featured a bronze-medal winner in Garret Lowney last year. And Lowney failed to place at the NCAA championships.

Optimism is abounding in this year’s team, as seven wrestlers with national-championship experience return; All-Americans Tony Black and Justin Staebler were lost to graduation. Of the national qualifiers returning, only Ralph Denisco, Brady Reinke, and Tyler Laudon are upperclassmen.

The senior, Denisco will share captain honors with juniors Laudon and Reinke. Laudon made his first NCAA appearance last year, while Reinke made the trip for the second time in two years. Denisco was a captain last year and said he is comfortable with the captain’s role.

“You have to lead by example. It’s easy to say stuff and not do it, but if a guy is seeing you do it, then it beats the issue into them a little bit more,” Denisco said.

Davis expects this year’s team to build off its impressive performance at the Big Tens, where it led the conference in qualifying wrestlers for nationals. He said he sees two freshmen making big contributions to this year’s squad.

“Right now I’m looking at Cole Wunnicke and Tyler Turner,” Davis said. “Wunnicke is the starter at 149. Right now those are the guys that stick out.”

Wunnicke compiled a 131-1 record in high school and was Wisconsin’s seventh four-time state champion. Turner is part of a recent tradition of brothers on the team. He joins brothers Adam and Tony, who wrestle at 165 and 133 respectively.

Wunnicke and Turner will be joined by what some believe is the top recruiting classes in the nation for 2004-05. Medford natives Josh and Jordan Crass will create the third set of brothers on the team. Also joining the 2004-05 team will be Craig Henning of Chippewa Falls, Dallas Herbst of Winneconne, William Garvin of Homewood, Ala., Zachary Tanelli of Short Hills, N.J., and Kyle Massey of Champlin, Minn.

“I’m very excited about this incoming class,” Davis said in a release. “They will bring a lot of intensity into the room. For our program to really continue to grow, we need that type of increased competition on the wrestling team. Very seldom do you get a class like this with wrestlers at all different weights, and our staff is looking forward to them joining our team next year.”

The Badgers have already made a statement wrestling at this year’s Michigan State Open. Wisconsin placed four wrestlers, including Adam Turner, in the top five.

Leading the way for Wisconsin was 184-pounder Ryan Flaherty, who went 7-1 while placing third. Nationally ranked sophomores Tom Clum and Ed Gutnik both went 5-2 on the day to finish in fifth place.

The Badgers take on UW-La Crosse this Sunday at the UW Field House and begin Big Ten play Jan. 23 against Indiana.