Frank Romano isn't asking for much. Or at least it doesn't seem like much.
Ordinarily, pleading for good health and favorable luck isn't the equivalent of asking for eternal life, world peace, the moon and stars above. But it pretty much has been this season for Romano, whose pleas have continually fallen on deaf ears during the Kent State wrestling team's trying 1997-98 campaign.
Injuries, ailments, departures ... you name it, and Romano has probably lost a key wrestler to it this season. But the Golden Flashes' mentor remains hopeful that maybe, just maybe, his pleas will be answered fittingly when the stakes are highest.
At this weekend's Mid-American Conference Championships.
"It's been a very unusual year. A lot of unusual things have happened, to say the least," said Romano, whose Flashes (12-9, 2-3 MAC) will host the MAC Championships Saturday and Sunday at the Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center. "I guess we're due for something good to happen, and this would be a great time for it. This is always a raucous tournament where a lot of strange things happen ... both good and bad."
Strange things have been happening to the Flashes all season. And they've predominantly all been bad.
Three wrestlers who placed at last year's MAC Championships (Steve Daugherty, Joe Boardwine and Jason Lara) are at the top of an incredibly long list of key performers who will be missing this weekend for various reasons, leaving Romano with a lineup that includes three freshmen and six wrestlers who will be making their initial appearance at the MAC's big show.
"I don't want to dwell on the guys we have out," said Romano. "The guys we have are all anxious and ready to go. This is the youngest team we've had in quite a while, which bodes well for our future. But for now we're inexperienced, so we'll have to see what happens."
Kent State has a solid and reliable one-two punch in junior Brian Singleton and senior Keith Shamblin.
Singleton (142 pounds) is rounding into form after missing all of last season (Army Reserves). The former Crestwood High School star is 12-3 overall and ranked 17th in the nation, and is seemingly on a crash course to meet Central Michigan's Casey Cunningham in the finals. Cunningham, ranked second in the nation, edged Singleton by one point on Feb. 22.
Shamblin, a former Southeast High School standout, was the preseason favorite to win the MAC's 150-pound crown. He has compiled a 23-6 record after finishing second at that same weight last year.
"They've both had real good years and we expect them to perform well this weekend," said Romano.
Dave Kotora (Aurora H.S.) is 23-7 on the year and should earn a seed at 190, while senior Cliff Andres (177) and junior Ed Hamway (167) could also be seeded. Hamway placed third at MACs at 167 a year ago.
Meanwhile, freshmen Brent Thompson (118), Jeremy Orsky (Hwt) and Mark Wentz (126) have all had solid rookie seasons.
Thompson, fresh off an upset win over top-ranked Davon Gray of Central Michigan in his last match, has come on strong of late. Orsky has been competitive all year at heavyweight, while Wentz (Streetsboro H.S.) has won 10 matches and is fully recovered from a concussion suffered on Feb. 20.
"The guys we have are all in pretty good shape," said Romano. "They've worked really hard and they're looking forward to wrestling at home. We haven't hosted the conference tournament since 1993, and we performed pretty well that year."
The Flashes finished second in '93 and have been runner-up the past two seasons. Kent State was the preseason pick to claim the conference crown this year, but that's no longer the case entering the MAC Championships.
"I wouldn't consider us the favorite," said Romano. "Everybody has to wrestle at their top level for us to do really well. What is really well? That's a relative question. We just want everyone to get the most out of his abilities and see where we end up."
Dual meet champion Ohio (5-0) and Central Michigan (4-1) would have to be considered the favorites entering the tournament.
The Chippewas were ranked as high as 14th in the country before losing to the Bobcats. They feature three wrestlers that are ranked among the top 10 in the country: Casey Cunningham (2nd, 142), Ryan Cunningham (6th, 158) and Mike Greenfield (10th, 177).
Ohio has two returning All-Americans in Shawn Enright (134) and Dwight Gardner (158). Enright is currently ranked eighth in the country, while Gardner is fifth.
Northern Illinois also has a returning All-American in Jeremy Goeden (25-1 at 190), who is currently seventh in the country.
Former Aurora High School star Tim Courtad (Hwt) anchors a formidable Miami squad along with Barry Jarvis (167). Courtad, the MAC's top-ranked heavyweight, is 20-6 and has been ranked among the nation's top 20.
"This is the strongest field we've had in many years," said Romano. "We have at least 12 wrestlers who have been ranked in the top 20 in the nation and that's pretty impressive for a six team league."
Along with each individual champion five wild card wrestlers will be chosen to represent the conference at the NCAA Championships, which will be held March 19-21 at the CSU Convocation Center in Cleveland. The MAC only received two wild card entries a year ago, which cost several Kent State wrestlers who finished second at the MAC Championships a shot at competing in the national tournament.
The preliminary round will begin Saturday at 1 p.m., followed by semifinals and wrestlebacks at 6 p.m. Finals and challenge matches will begin Sunday at 1 p.m.
Admission is $5 per session for adults and $3 for Kent State students, children under 12 and senior citizens.