(2008-09 team record in parentheses)

Likely top contenders

Absegami (14-9) is perhaps the deepest team in the area, led by District 32 champions and state qualifiers John Harvey (135 pounds) and Shane Robinson (145). Harvey and Robinson could each eclipse the 100-win mark this season. Troy Willette (140) was a 20-match winner last season and gives the Braves a nice run in the middleweights. Ebby Majd (125) and Ian Capella (171) each qualified for regions last season. Kevin Stadtmueller (189), Mike Barber (215/285) and Steve Schwartz (215/285) will be tough in the upper weights for the Braves, who hope to repeat as Cape-Atlantic League American Conference champs and send head coach Gene Barber out on a high note in his final year as head coach.

Hammonton (26-3) is the defending CAL National Conference champ and coming off the first sectional title in school history. The Blue Devils should be in the mix in the conference and the sectional once again. Brothers Mike (135) and Phil Bakuckas (140) and Josh Clark (145) combine to form one of the toughest middleweight trios in the area. Sophomore Michael Jacobs (103/112), region qualifier Kenny Brewer (119) and Brian Beebe (215/285) give the team some nice balance.

Southern Regional (19-5) has won an area-record five straight South Jersey Group IV titles and despite the loss of a talented senior class, which featured three state placewinners (including state champ Glenn Carson), the Rams will again be one of the favorites in the Shore Conference and South Jersey Group IV. District 24 and Region 8 champ Kyle Casaletto is the only returning state placewinner in the area after taking eighth at 103 pounds last season. Casaletto will move up to 112 this season. Bubba Lanno (125), Rich Tieto (130), Jeff McElwee (160) and Mike Case (189) each wrested into regions last year. Each is capable of making a strong run in states. Anthony Vincent (171), Kevin Westburg (215) and Kyle Cox (285) have been waiting in the wings behind some talented wrestlers and are ready to make a name for themselves.

St. Augustine Prep (21-11) seems to have as many questions as they have answers heading into the season. The Hermits are young and might even have to forfeit a weight class or two, according to second-year head coach Joe Melchiore. That said, the Prep still returns enough talent to compete in the conference and sectionals. District champ and state qualifier Joey Esposito returns and will likely go at 119 this season. Paxton Burgin (140) and Adam Schroeder (152) are tough in the middleweights. Freshmen Connor Donohue (160/171) and Frank Zeigler (160/171) will look to contribute right away after successful junior high careers. Andrew Baumgardner anchors the upperweights at 285.

Cape-Atlantic League

American Conference

Egg Harbor Township (14-12) is led by three-time District 32 champ, defending Region 8 champ and three-time state qualifier Zach Agostino, who recently committed to wrestle at the University of Penn next season. Agostino will wrestle at 171 pounds this season. District 32 champ Matt Capetola (160), Mark Capetola (215) and Christian Santiago each won more than 25 matches last season. … Oakcrest (16-6) is led by 112-pounder Jovanni Arroyo, who won 28 matches last season. Pedro Benitez (130) and Antonio Mancella (135) give the Falcons some depth in the lower-middle weights. Robby Jiacopello (160) and Nick Hanusewicz (171) are two of nine seniors in Oakcrest's projected lineup, making the Falcons one of the most experienced teams in the area. … Ocean City (10-14) could be the darkhorse in the division. Coley O'Brien won the 119-pound District 32 title last season but missed weight at regions to end his season prematurely. O'Brien was a state qualifier as a freshman and is one of the area's best. Anthony DeSantis, Mark Mariano and Vince DeSantis give the Red Raiders a nice run in the middleweights from 140-152, respectively. … Millville (8-14) returns eight letterwinners but still lacks mat experience. Jake Martin and Jake Derella will be tough down low at 103 and 112 pounds, respectively. Mike Bellardino (152) was a region qualifier in 2008. Chris Johnson (215) missed qualifying for regions by one place last season with a fourth-place finish at districts. … Mainland Regional (6-18) seniors Doug Ewing (130) and Clifford Farrell (189) are each former region qualifiers and will look to lead the team. Brendan O'Hara (135) and Antoine Lewis (285) each missed qualifying for regions by one match last season. … Vineland (2-18) will be much-improved this season led by a strong group of lower-middle weights. Ricky Azeglio (130) and Michael Gleisberg (135) were each region qualifiers last season. Senior Christian Trainor sat out last season afer transferring from Lower Cape May and could have a big season at 119. … Atlantic City (2-12) is still building its program in only its second year on the varsity level. Julio Matos-Nunez (119) and Jesus Vasquez (145) have each been in the program for three years and could surprise some people. Jorge Mendez and Jermaine Royal give the Vikings a pair of athletic upper weights at 215 and 285 pounds, respectively.

National Conference

Buena Regional (13-13) is young with only two seniors projected to start, but never count a Doug Castellari-coached team out. Heavyweight Dom Hinrichsen is a three-time regional qualifier and one of the top 285-pounders in the area. Stevan Austino is the Chiefs' only other senior. Buena has some tough young wrestlers in the lower weights that will need to learn on the fly. … St. Joseph (3-16) is led by first-year coach Mike Hampton, a former region champ and state placewinner from Absegami High School. Senior captains Justin Busch (119/125) and Alex Palmer (130/135) are each four-year varsity wrestlers and will look to lead the team. Freshman Roy Lucas could make an immediate impact at 215. … Holy Spirit (2-20) will be able to field a full roster for the first time in head coach Ralph Paolone's three years at the school. Garrett Paolone (103/112) has the potential to be a 20-match winner this season. Spirit's lower weights are their strength, with David Waugh (103), Michael Dattalo (119/125) and Jason Cohen (125/130) returning from last season's team. The Spartans will have to overcome the loss of Mac Mancuso, the only state champion in school history, who is redshirting at West Virginia this season. … Lower Cape May Regional (16-11) will fill out an entire lineup for the first time in Rocky Ciccozzi's four years as coach and the Caper Tigers have the talent to compete for the conference title and a playoff berth. Josh Dickinson (112) and Chaz Lear (215/285) are each region qualifiers and will anchor the team. Tyler DeShields (140) and Dylan Gannon (189/215) will also be tough. Freshman Zach Valcarsi will make an immediate impact at 103 and sophomore Steve Rossi (125) round out a solid group of lower weights. … Middle Township (10-13) is a darkhorse in the conference this season led by Jeff White at 160 and Joe Griner at 215. Each wrestled into regions last season. Senior Mike Loefflad is tough at 130. Sophomores Brandon Tighe (112) and Dylan Mooers (171) could surprise some people for one of the deepest Middle teams in recent memory.

Shore Conference

Barnegat (16-12) is led by 30-match winner of a year ago, Shane Herring, who won the school's one and only district title last season. Herring could make a nice run in the state tournament. Heavyweight Tony Frigon and 112-pounder Ryan Fogarty were each 20-match winners and 135-pounder Taylor Mitchell is capable of a 20-win season himself. Freshman Joe Mandara will contribute right away. … Pinelands Regional (12-12) returns five 20-match winners from last season, led by 130-pounder Dan Mooney and 215-pounder Alex Green, each region qualifiers. Christian Lippai (119/125), Christian Chasmer (125/130) and Greg Venditto (135) give the Wildcats a nice run of tough wrestlers in the lower-middle weights. Brandon Bezak will see time at 152 and 160 this season. Earl Potterson and Josh Ott are seniors but are first-year wrestlers. Coach Brett Tullo says their athleticism will help them contribute right away at 171 and 189 pounds, respectively. … Lacey Township (14-12) is led by 285-pounder Mike Stuppiello, one of the top heavyweights in the area. Colin Coffey won 14 matches as a freshman in 2007 before moving out-of-state. Coffey is back and expected to have a big season at 119. Sophomore Lex Knapp (215) combines with Stuppiello to give the Lions a tough pair of upperweights. Steve VanEerde was a 20-match winner last season at 112.

Tri-County Conference

Cumberland Regional (3-22) is led by Mahalo Camba (215/285), a two-time District 31 champ who missed qualifying for state by one match last season. Camba has the potential to make a nice run in the state tournament this season. Brothers William (119) and Robert Elliott (145/152) each qualified for regions last season. Senior Gary Mosley (145) returns after missing last season with an injury. Sophomores Cruz Flores (130) and Richard Morris (135) could make an impact this season.

Dates to remember

Dec. 18-19 - Southern, Absegami and Egg Harbor Township travel to the University of Delaware for the prestigious Beast of the East tournament.

Dec. 22 - A great rivalry, Jackson Memorial travels to Southern Regional for an early-season test.

Dec. 29 - A great early tri-meet with St. Augustine Prep and Phillipsburg traveling to Absegami.

Dec. 30 - Eastern at Southern Regional in a rematch of last season's South Jersey Group IV final, which Southern won 33-28.

Jan. 23 - A quad meet featuring some great teams that could also decide the CAL National Conference title as Hammonton, St. Augustine Prep and Williamstown wrestle at Paulsboro.

Jan. 27 - Shore Conference Tournament starts.

Jan. 30 - Absegami wrestles at Paulsboro. It will be the last time Absegami coach Gene Barber coaches against Paulsboro, his alma mater, as he is set to retire from coaching. Paulsboro coach Paul Morina, a close personal friend of Barber, has 483 wins heading into the season. Barber has 482.

Feb. 1 - Cutoff for teams to qualify for the state team tournament.

Feb. 6 - A great late-season quad with Pinelands Regional, Kittatinny and Southern Regional traveling to Absegami.

Feb. 8 - Team championships start with sectional quarterfinal rounds.

Feb. 10 - Sectional semifinals.

Feb. 12 - Sectional finals.

Feb. 14 - State Group semifinals and finals.

Feb 19-20 - Individual tournament starts with districts.

Feb 23 and 26-27 - Regionals.

March 5-7 - Individual State Championships at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.

Contact John O'Kane:

609-272-7210