Oneonta State junior Josh Wake has a lot of goals this season.

The funny thing is, he's a wrestler.

Two weeks after winning his first Empire Collegiate Wrestling Conference championship, Delhi graduate Wake will return to the mat today for his first appearance in the NCAA Division III Tournament.

"Coming into the season, one of my goals was to win the conference and go to nationals," said Wake, who is unseeded in the 184-pound weight class. "I also have a goal to be an All-American. So far, I'm right on track."

Wake (31-11) opens against fifth-seeded Joshua Zabel of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse during one of two preliminary rounds, which begin at 11 a.m. today at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Their match will be one of about 90 meetings in Session I, which includes the first two rounds of wrestlebacks and is expected to last roughly three hours.

Session II, which runs from 6-10:30 p.m. today, features national quarterfinals and the third and fourth rounds of wrestlebacks. Session III, a 5 1/2-hour segment highlighted by the national semifinals, starts at 10 a.m. Saturday.

The first three sessions will take place on six mats at the U.S. Cellular Center, but the spotlight will be on one for the national finals, which start at 7 p.m. Saturday and will crown 10 champions.

"There are only two days of wrestling left," Wake said, "so there's nothing to really leave out there. ... I'm going to go match-by-match and get focused for each individual match. I don't want to leave anything out there and I don't want to look ahead."

Surely, Wake has at least peeked at Zabel since winning a 16-5 major decision over Cortland's Martino Sottile in the ECWC 184-pound final Feb. 21 at Oswego State.

Zabel is a two-time Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champion who placed fifth at the NCAAs last season to earn All-America status. A senior captain, Zabel (39-5) is fourth on UW-La Crosse's all-time wins list at 132.

"If you're playing the numbers game, Josh is right in the middle," said O-State coach Duane Ritter, who has coached eight NCAA D-III qualifiers _ including five ECWC champions _ over his five seasons with the Red Dragons. "It's a good spot and a good place to be."

Wake is on the top-half of the his 16-man bracket, meaning he'll likely have to ride a wave of upsets if he's to win a national title. Should he beat Zabel, Wake will meet Lawrence's Sam Laes (24-7) or No. 4 seed Gabe Youel of North Central (37-3). Wake's half also includes No. 8 seed Dustin Baxter of St. John's (24-7) and top-seeded Michael Wilcox of Delaware Valley.

The other side of 184 features second-seeded Romeo Djoumessi of Wartburg (9-1); No. 3 Phil Moenkedick of Concordia-Moorhead (32-0); No. 6 Bryan Lenhardt of Johnson & Wales (39-2); and No. 7 Ben Engelland of UW Stevens Point (29-4).

Djoumessi beat Wilcox for the national title at 184 last season, but Wilcox earned the top seed by pinning Djoumessi during a dual meet in late January. Zabel and fellow returning All-Americans Youel and Lenhardt are seeded where they finished in last season's championships.

"I'm not really nervous about it or anything," said Wake, a winner of 89 college matches who describes his style as extremely physical and aggressive. "I'm working hard. In my head, I know I'm capable of winning the matches. I've really been working hard, so there's no reason it can't be me winning those matches."

That means, of course, there's no reason it can't be someone else. Wake's twin brother, Rochester Institute of Technology junior Jason, should know that all too well.

The Wakes, who were coached by their father, John, at Delhi, came close to making this weekend's trip to Iowa a family affair. But Jason dropped a 3-0 decision to Lycoming's Christopher Dahlheimer in the 165-pound ECWC final.

"It would have been really, really nice for him to go, too," Josh said of his brother, who held a first-alternate spot for the NCAAs at 165 pounds but never got the call to go as the bracket remained in tact. "He fell one match short. You just can't take it for granted. Don't waste the opportunity because not everybody gets it."

Josh Wake has a chance to earn O-State's fourth All-America honor under Ritter, following Bainbridge-Guilford/Afton graduate Dustin Winn and Trevor Hiffa. Winn placed third five seasons ago and Hiffa finished fourth the last two seasons.

"Win, lose or draw, he's had a tremendous season," Ritter said. "There are two big days left and he has expectations and goals, but the goal has got to be to go to the top of it. Hopefully, he gets his hand raised at the end of some of those matches."

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Dean Russin can be reached at drussin@thedailystar.com or 607-432-1000, ext. 215.

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