Steve Olson knows how to navigate the Wisconsin Little Ten Conference by now. The longtime Oconomowoc wrestling coach won WLT titles for the Raccoons as a wrestler in 1988 and 89 and hopes to close the historic league with a fifth-straight team championship.
"I'm going to be disappointed because I think our wrestling conference for the Little Ten has always been strong," Olson said. "We get good competition from almost every school. Even if a school is down, they still have one or two studs in their lineup, so you're getting good competition."
OHS has won the last four dual-meet titles and last won the WLT tournament in 2014. Oconomowoc brings back senior Christian Gurule, who is the lone returning conference champion from the 2015-16 team. Gurule, an honorable-mention All-Conference pick in football, knocked off Wisconsin Lutheran's Brian Corbins, the top seed, in the 138-pound WLT semifinals by major decision.
"Christian with knocking off Corbins last year, I think he made his mark," Olson said. "That was kind of his coming of age. I'm happy to have him back, but him coming off football, we've got to get him in shape. We're not in any state-caliber wrestling shape yet with him. But with his work ethic, I'm positive we'll get him back in there by midseason."
Gurule, who is slotted at 145 pounds this year, knows his underdog role likely no longer applies.
"I wasn't really expected to go win and it was pretty nice being an underdog, but being on top, everybody is aiming for me," Gurule said. "I just have to take it match by match. I think I'll do well with the pressure. It's not too much."
Another experienced wrestler is Luke Hyland, who has placed second in the Little Ten in consecutive seasons. Hyland is ready to finally be on top of the podium as a senior at 132.
"I've been working hard," Hyland said. "I'm stronger than I was last year and I'm at the same weight. I'm really excited for this season."
In the fall, Hyland would wake up around 5 a.m. and travel to OHS for weight-lifting sessions with Olson and other wrestlers.
"Luke Hyland has been really busting hard out in the weight room with me all fall," Olson said. "He gets up kind of religiously doing his thing. I've had him, I've had Luke Olson all over at (the Askren Wrestling Academy) for most of the time from fall through spring."
At 285, Chris Aschenbrenner returns for his senior season after placing third in the WLT. Aschenbrenner wrestled with three-time state place winner Brett Samson during practice last season, which Olson believes will help the heavyweight.
"Ash, I think he's coming off a pretty good football season," Olson said. "He's got a great mentality. He's not your stereotypical heavyweight. He can throw, but he does a lot of other things. He can ride legs, he can shoot. He's not your stereotypical. He gets that probably from what Brett was. He was always Brett's partner."
Wrestlers expected to be constants in the varsity lineup this season are Ben Jaworski (106), Coby Ganser (113), Luke Olson (120), Jackson Pratt (126), Hyland (132), Garrett Sobstad (138), Sawyer St. George (138), Gurule (145), Keagan Lazar (152/160), Nick Fiorita (170), Theo Ringgold (182), A.J. Schmidt (195/220), Chandler Voigt (195/220), Jake Ploch (220) and Aschenbrenner (285).
"We have high expectations as a team," Gurule said. "For it to be the last year of the Wisconsin Little Ten is obviously something to keep in mind with every dual meet."
There will likely be strong competition at a number of weight classes this season for OHS, as 88 wrestlers are out for the team.
"We always pride ourselves with how deep our lineup is," Hyland said. "We've got like 80 guys up here (in the wrestling room). If someone goes out, the next guy up is ready to step in. We're pretty comfortable with our backups, too. We stress that everybody is important. Every JV wrestler helps out and they may have a chance to come in whenever. I think everyone is ready for the varsity experience. I think everyone is out to get the varsity matches. If someone gets hurt, the next guy is ready to go."
Instead of facing Madison-area schools in the postseason, Oconomowoc moved east this season and has a sectional full of more local teams like Arrowhead, Menomonee Falls, Pewaukee and Sussex Hamilton.
"Our goals, you start local," Olson said. "You start with your goals with what you can do in conference first. But we do have aspirations to finish higher, peak at the right time and get to that team state. It's going to be a hell of a battle with Pewaukee, us, Arrowhead and Falls. The thing I like about that is there's a little bit of parity there. We all have got some studs and we'll see who doesn't have the holes."
Hyland wants to end this season like Oconomowoc's seniors did in 2015-16.
"The kids who graduated last year won conference all four years in high school," Hyland said. "That's my goal. I want to win all four years, too. That's what we say every day at practice, after practice. We say, 'Conference champs on three.' That's our breakdown. That's our main goal and that's our focus right now."