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Cougars Look for Continued Improvement

November 12, 2002

         Having lost only one wrestler from last season, the 2002-2003 Southern Illinois University Edwardsville wrestling team promises to be stronger and more experienced. Head Coach Booker Benford also feels it is improved.
         "In the past, our number of wrestlers have forced us to forfeit weight classes," said Benford. "With our numbers now, we shouldn't have that problem."
         Last year's team finished 4-9. The year before last, the team finished 0-16. Benford hopes this steady improvement will continue this year.
         SIUE returns Zach Stephens (St. Charles, Mo.), last year's regional champion in the 174-pound weight class. "Zach is a seasoned veteran and is really tough," Benford said. "His goal really should be to win nationals."
         SIUE will rely on a freshman in the 125-pound weight class. Brett Merckle (Highland) and Jeremy Laubscher (Dow) will battle for the starting position. Benford said both have great technique.
         Justin Lankford (St. Charles, Mo.) will fill the 133-pound weight class. Last season, Lankford compiled a 4-7 record wrestling in the 141-pound division. "Justin's going to be tough in the 133 weight class," Benford said. "We'll be counting on him for some victories. I'm looking for big things out of him."
         The 141-pound weight class may be the deepest on the team. Matt Warren (East Peoria) will likely get the starting nod. Benford indicated Alex Linninger (Bloomington) also will challenge for a position in the 141-pound division. The Cougars also have a couple of wrestlers waiting on the sidelines to jump into the position during the second semester.
         The Cougars will be without the services of Nathan Graumenz (Vandalia) in the 149-pound weight class at the beginning of the year. Graumenz, who finished third in regionals last year, is recovering from an injury. With him out, Ross Ryan (Crystal Lake) should see significant time.
         The 157-pound weight class includes Matt Oliva (Bartlett). Oliva is recovering from off-season ankle surgery. "When Oliva becomes healthy, he'll have a battle for the spot in the lineup."
         In the 165-pound weight class, L.J. Heisner (Pinckneyville) and Mike Davis (Alton) will battle for the starting position. Heisner is recovering from an injury, but Benford feels he will be in the lineup soon.
         The 184 and 197-pound weight classes may be the thinnest on this year's team. Brandon Lorek (Hanover Park) is the lone wrestler in the 184-pound division. Sean Diltz (Mexico, Mo.), a Missouri state champion, will be the lone 197-pounder. "Sean is a good scrapper and has good offense," Benford said. "He is learning the college game real fast."
         Aaron Wiens (Cicero) returns in the heavyweight division. Wiens finished last season with a 20-19 record and finished sixth in regionals. "Wiens has improved 100 percent from his first year here," Benford said. "He's began to prepare better, and that has really helped him." Brent Ray (Woodstock) will wrestle behind Wiens, something Benford feels will benefit him in the future.
         Benford has been pleased with the leadership and intensity in practice. He hopes this continues throughout the season.
         "We have good kids that are hungry for success," he said. "It is good to have a group of veterans who wrestle with intensity all seven minutes. Hopefully, that will wear off to the younger guys." The Cougars' first home dual is Wednesday, November 13 against Missouri-Baptist at 7 p.m. at the Vadalabene Center.
                  -siue cougars-