For a program that deals with high expectations year in and year out, it seems the stakes are even higher this year.
And the reason is all the talent coming back, despite losing four seniors.
Having lofty expectations is the definition of the Northern Lebanon wrestling program in a nutshell. The Vikings are coming off their most memorable year in its history, winning a fourth straight section title, earning a Lancaster-Lebanon League championship, and the first wrestling District 3 team title for Lebanon County.
And as the Vikings officially turn the page to a new season, they still have found room for improvement, after a first-round exit from the PIAA Class 2A Tournament at the hands of Greenville.
“It’s nice when that expectation is in the room," said NL coach Rusty Wallace, who's a win away from his 100th win the Vikings coach. "The guys know before the season starts what our goals are going to be. Not having the result we wanted to have in the state tournament last year sort of made this group an easy one to motivate. They’ve done a ton of work in the offseason.”
Being a part of a program like the Vikings requires each wrestler to handle the pressure well enough to ignore it, in order to maintain their performance level in the way they’re capable.
Wallace said, "One thing we really preach is going about it the right way. Having the right mentality, the right training and doing the right things in the practice room. If you just worry about everything in the day-to-day … your approach to practice and competition, then everything takes care of itself. Our kids are pretty good with that.”
The most notable of the talent returning are seniors Luke Funck and Hunter Wallace in the 182 and 195 pounds, respectively.
Coming off a season full of awards - winning district and regional championships, and becoming the first Lebanon County wrestler to medal at the PIAA Tournament since Elco’s David Ziegler in 2007 - Funck still has one thing left to achieve: a state championship.
Funck, who's also coming off a torn MCL injury sustained during football season, says he regretted his approach to last year's state semifinal match, which has been eating away at him all offseason, feeding into his motivation even more.
“I was kind of being laid back and not going for every opportunity I had in different moments of the matches,” he said. “I really have to work on getting off the bottom, which I’ve been doing since summer. Those matches have been in the back of my head while wrestling over the summer.”
Fellow senior Hunter Wallace is right behind Funck in looking to finish his NL career on a high note, not only looking to finish on top of every podium he can, but also earning his 100th career win.
“I was a small 195, so a lot of things didn’t go my way sometimes,” Hunter Wallace said. “I’ve worked all offseason lifting, running, and attending as many open gyms as possible to fix my mistakes and do better this season.”
Fellow senior Trevor Leonard is also someone to keep an eye on at 132, finishing last season finishing 44-10, including a fourth-place finish at regionals.
Meanwhile, sophomore Colin Leonard is looking to build off a huge freshman season finishing 39-19, leading to qualifying for the state tournament, as well as a sixth-place finish at regionals at 126.
Besides Colin Leonard, Rusty Wallace says it will be important for more young guys to step up this year in order for the Vikings to keep taking the next step.
Wallace said, “We’ll have a couple more freshman this year in the lineup who won’t be allowed to be freshman. We’re going to have to rely heavily on them. But I think the balance will still be there. For a lot of these guys, it's fine tuning different points of their techniques. I know its cliché, but we just need to get better every day.”
Northern Lebanon Vikings
Coach: Rusty Wallace, 11th season
Last year's record: 18-3
Key returners: Luke Funck, Sr., 182; Hunter Wallace, Sr., 195; Trevor Leonard, Sr., 132; Colin Leonard, So., 126; Luis Negrerios, Jr., 160; Blaise Bressler, Jr., 152.
Season opener: Dec. 14 at Columbia, 7 p.m.
Coach: Jerome Simon, fourth season
Last year's record: 12-9
Key returners: Zach Renninger, Jr., 132; Brayden Turner, Sr., 182; Connor Waite, Sr., 145 Alex Wilson, Sr., 195 John Allen, Sr., 152; Hayden Funck, So., 126.
Key newcomer: Matt Inman, Fr.
Season opener: Friday, Dec. 9 at Chartiers Houston Tournament
Season outlook: After his brother Josh ended his successful Dutchmen career with a trip to the state tournament, junior Zach Renninger looks to follow suit, already having been a district qualifier in his first two years.
But this time, it's time for him to step up and make it to the podium come tournament time.
A-C coach Jerome Simon said, "The thing that happens a lot with Zach is he's a physical wrestler, but sometimes he doesn't open up. I'd like to see him open up more but stay physical. When it comes time for the postseason, the matches are closer and low-scoring, which he tends to lose. I'd like him to create a lot more flurries, open up more on his feet, and see where it leads him."
Renninger's growth will be key for A-C from a team standpoint as well, as a lack of depth will test the Dutchmen this season, having eight returning seniors without much varsity experience.
But one thing the A-C seniors can provide is leadership experience.
Simon said, "Most of the seniors have been around for three years. They've definitely seen what the other guys have done. We'll be looking at them more for the work ethic example and having a positive attitude."
Coach: Chad Miller, 22nd season
Last year's record: 20-4
Key returners: Alex Puglio, Sr., 120; Trey Donmoyer, So., 145; Cam Krow, Sr., 145; Owen Nell, Sr., 138.
Season opener: Dec. 14 at Donegal, 7 p.m.
Season outlook: Starting a new season in a new class, now in Class 2A, the Raiders look to capitalize after not having a single district qualifier despite a successful regular season.
"It makes a huge difference going from 3A to 2A," Elco coach Chad Miller said. "The competition level is vastly different. Now, individuals are pushing each other harder this year because now they have goals that are achievable, especially for the seniors. I think that will really help us."
Three of those seniors - Alex Puglio (120), Cam Krow (145), and Owen Nell (138) - will look to lead the way, along with sophomore Trey Donmoyer (145).
Miller said, "Most of them have been in our lineup since their sophomore year. They've really grown a lot. Their leadership is going to be important. But the way our team works, there's really no superstars, so everyone has to pull their own weight. We can't just depend on one person, which is a good thing. We just want them to push the other guys in keeping everyone responsible."
Cedar Crest Falcons
Coach: Barry Spohn, ninth season
Last year's record: 1-15
Key returners: Ross Fisher, Sr., 285; Nick Stout, So., 285; Ryan Scicchitano, Fr., 138; Sebastian Lausch, So., 138.
Season opener: Friday, at Newport Duals
Season outlook: Without a whole lot of numbers returning and coming off a tough year, the Falcons do have one wrestler who will battle for postseason contention in his final year in a Cedar Crest uniform.
That wrestler is Ross Fisher (285 pounds), who looks to build off a 21-11 junior season, while qualifying and winning a match in the district tournament.
"He's worked quite a bit this offseason," Cedar Crest coach Barry Spohn said. "I'd like to see him be more aggressive and offensive minded. A lot of times, he'll sit and wait and let opponents dictate the match and react. He has to really control ties on his feet. The first guy who goes to his back is often in trouble with heavyweights, and he has gotten better being on top. Hopefully with a little more confidence and a year under his belt, he'll be able to do well."
As far as the rest of the team goes, Spohn just wants his team to learn and grow, knowing his team is small and has very little experience.
"The first thing is they have to enjoy it and find positives from it," Spohn said. "I just want to see them continue to grow and realize how important their technique is. Our schedule should allow us to be in competitive matches, facing teams that are similar to our situation. If we can win some of them or at least be in some of them, that can bring motivation going forward."
Coach: Frank Landis, second season
Key returners: Josh Myers, Jr., 126; Leo Higgins, Sr., 220.
Season opener: Saturday, at Brandywine Heights Tournament
Season outlook: After a tough season in which only nine wrestlers participated, the Cougars look to rebound with a nearly full lineup this season. That means, however, there will still be growing pains with more freshmen coming in, especially with some that have gotten bigger. They will have to not only adjust on the fly, but do it in a slightly higher weight class.
"Our ninth graders are going to need to learn the varsity level sooner rather than later," Palmyra coach Frank Landis said. "We'll have some winnable matches with our lineup being more filled. We had a lot of close matches last year where we wrestled well, but forfeits were too much to overcome."
Two upperclassmen looking to lead the way are junior Josh Myers at 126 and senior Leo Higgins at 220, who enjoyed a deep district tournament run, and looks to make the next step in qualifying for the state tournament.
Landis said, "Leo just needs to develop more offense against the better opponents and be able to score in close matches. For Josh, he's improved a lot on his feet, and he needs to continue working on that."
Coach: Vaughn Black, fourth season
Last year's record: 6-20
Key returners: Jose Barrios, Jr., 120; Dallin Ocasio, So., 152; Carlos Cruz, So., 132.
Season opener: Saturday, at Susquehanna Township Tournament.
Season outlook: The Cedars are looking to continue to grow after enduring a season with only a handful of wins, and the key for this season is for every wrestler to stay the course.
"Everyone needs to stick with what we teach," Lebanon coach Vaughn Black said. "They need to continue showing good technique, and start gaining confidence. That also comes with continuing to support each other and being competitive in practice. All the guys we have worked hard this summer, coming to open mats and going to camps. We just need to continue building that team camaraderie."
Along with junior Jose Barrios at 120, two underclassmen have emerged in sophomores Dallin Ocasio and Carlos Cruz at 152 and 132, respectively. All three come into the season with hopes of qualifying for the district tournament.
And like for the rest of their teammates, confidence is key for all three district hopefuls.
"In crunch time, can they finish those 1-2 matches, and can they pin ... that's key," Black said. "The ability to shoot is critical. When you get confident in that area, you tend to get confident a lot more. Learning to get off the bottom position is critical, too. They'll be stuck there and not be able to escape. That's not going to help you in close matches."