Ask any member of the Greenwich High School wrestling team how important last year's senior class was to the continued success of the program and they'll probably echo the sentiments of co-captain Ryan Whittle.
"I think last year's team was unique, and I think everyone in the room would agree," said Whittle, a senior who placed fifth in the FCIAC and sixth in Class LL at 160 pounds last season. "We had a lot of kids contending for state titles, so that group definitely set the bar high. I'm not saying we can't accomplish the same things, but it's going to be tough."
Making up for the loss of six talented wrestlers, including two FCIAC champions, four FCIAC finalists and three State Open qualifiers from a team that went 15-2 last winter, will be easier said than done.
However, with another solid group comprised of four seasoned veterans, who placed in the top-five in the FCIAC, and a number of unheralded but talented newcomers, this year's group of Greenwich wrestlers is poised to leave its own mark in the history books.
The Cardinals open the 2011-12 season next Thursday with a home match against Bridgeport Central.
"Greenwich sports in general are all about tradition," Whittle said. "Greenwich wrestling in particular has always been known for being strong. I for one have no intention of letting that tradition fade away."
Greenwich might not rack up the same amount of individual accolades as last year's team, and might not be as stacked as the team that placed third in the FCIAC two seasons ago. But head coach George Albano will have more balance from weight class to weight class and a solid infusion of young talent, including a freshman class that goes 15 members deep.
Greenwich has four returning starters, eight wrestlers with varsity experience and at least one freshman -- Alex Jarombek -- who comes in already polished with extensive experience on the youth level.
"This season is going to be a test, not just for me but for the entire program" Albano said. "It's going to be a challenge to maintain the tradition of excellence we've had here. We had a great season last year. That team definitely set the bar high and I don't know if we can meet it. But these kids are going to try like heck to get there."
AT THE HELM: Albano is in his second season as head coach. Albano took over for his older brother A.J., who enjoyed great success during his three-year stay before being hired to coach the Brien McMahon football team. The younger Albano was also an assistant under Joe Santa Lucia for three years at McMahon, where both he and his brother enjoyed stellar wrestling careers.
Albano, who teaches seventh-grade math at Scofield Magnet School in Stamford, was already well acquainted with the Greenwich wrestlers when he took over last year. Not surprisingly, his team trusts him completely.
"A.J. was a great coach and it was tough to see him leave," Whittle said. "But we were very comfortable with George once we knew he was coming in because he's an Albano and we knew he'd do a great job."
WHO'S GONE: The Cardinals lost FCIAC champions Ben Ceci (189) and two-time conference title-winner Johnny D'Elia (112). Ceci was second at the State Open and D'Elia was sixth. The Cardinals will also have to replace John Wardell (119) and Mat Gray (135), each of whom placed fifth in the FCIAC a season ago, as well as FCIAC runner-ups Joey McGuire (215) and Jay Cummiskey (152), who was third in Class LL last winter.
WHO'S BACK: Whittle, the team's only returning state finalist, moves up from 160 to 171. Junior Mark Chien (106) is back after placing third in the FCIAC at 103 last year. Senior captain Matt Diddell returns at 152, where he took fourth in the conference and senior Cameron Driscoll is coming off a third-place finish at 145.
Greenwich will be loaded in the 145-160 weight classes led by junior Ray Morris and senior Max Kim. Junior Eric Tack (138) has a half-season of experience with junior Brian Cronin (180) and heavyweight Graham Terry stepping into starting roles.
WATCH OUT FOR: Jarombek, whose brother Tim was a former captain for the Cardinals, should be a force to be reckoned with right off the bat.
"It's a luxury to have a freshman with his type of wrestling experience," Albano said. "Even at such a young age, he's proving to be a great leader in the room."
Morris is short on practical experience, but Albano calls him the most athletic member of the team with a strong work ethic.
"He wants to be good," Albano said. "And he'll do anything it takes to get there."
STRENGTHS: Depth. Unlike last season when the Cardinals were carried by five or six standouts, Albano will have two or three wrestlers at each weight class he can throw into the starting lineup. If the Cardinals stay healthy, that can only lead to success.
WEAKNESSES: Albano's only concern is a slight lack of experience with just four wrestlers coming back with a full season of varsity competition under their belts. The first order of business will be throwing as many grapplers into the fire early on as possible.
SHOWDOWNS: Greenwich has a Dec. 29th meeting with Danbury, which has won 23 of the last 24 FCIAC titles. But the meets the Cardinals have circled on the calendar are Westhill on Dec. 22, FCIAC powerhouse Trumbull on Jan. 4 and 2010 conference champion Fairfield Warde on Jan. 11.
DID YOU KNOW?: Albano's father, also named George, is a notable sportswriter at The Hour of Norwalk. The elder Albano has been telling great stories for over a quarter-century and has been honored by a host of organizations. Albano was most recently inducted into the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame.