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TheMat com s Women s College Team Preview Missouri Valley College seeks to retain No 1 ranking in

By Gary Abbott | Oct. 02, 2002, 12 a.m. (ET)

As women's college wrestling grows, more task of being the nation's best college team will become more and more difficult. This year, the No. 1 team in the land will be much more hard to predict than in previous seasons. Entering the year, there are now six women's varsity wrestling programs, along with some club teams and some individual athletes competing on their men's varsity team. In recent years, Missouri Valley College has been the dominant college team in the United States. The Vikings have dominated the scene with the largest squad which also featured some of the best individual athletes in the country on the Senior level. A number of factors will make it more difficult for Missouri Valley to end the year as No. 1 in TheMat.com U.S. College Women's Wrestling Team Rankings. Missouri Valley brought in a smaller recruiting class this year, and a number of competitors had their best recruiting efforts to date. In addition, three talented athletes on the team were accepted to the USOTC resident athlete program in Colorado Springs, Colo., leaving the team without proven leadership. Four teams have a legitimate chance to push Missouri Valley and come out at season's end with the top ranking: Univ. of Minnesota-Morris, Cumberland College (Ky.), Neosho County CC (Kan.) and Menlo College (Calif.). The question will be if these teams have the individuals to overcome Missouri Valley's considerable depth. Pacific University (Ore.), which became the nation's newest varsity program, will have a rebuilding year after a coaching change and the loss of four stars to the USOTC program. The Pacific team, then a club program, finished the 2000-01 season as the No. 2 program in the nation. There are eight weight classes in U.S. women's college wrestling, the seven new international weight divisions in freestyle wrestling, plus an additional weight class at 169.5 pounds. With the growth of the size of the college teams, it will be possible for many of these squads to have competitive dual meets in addition to strong tournament action. A team-by-team preview of each varsity program follows, along with information on some of the clubs that will be involved on the college scene this year: MISSOURI VALLEY COLLEGE (NAIA, Coach Mike Machholz) The Vikings spent the entire year last season with the No. 1 ranking, with a strong combination of star power and depth. This year, the race for the top will be more challenging for Coach Mike Machholz' team, as three top stars were lost to the USOTC program, a few athletes left the team during last season, plus a smaller than usual recruiting class was brought in to expand the roster. Viking fans need not worry too much. Missouri Valley brings back an experienced lineup, with nationally-ranked athletes at all eight college weight classes. What the team is missing at this point is proven leadership, a void that can be filled with seniors or some emerging underclassmen. With Clarrisa Chun, Tori Adams and Nina Vernon gone to USOTC, just who is the best returning Viking wrestler this year? Based upon U.S. Senior national rankings, it is Mollie Keith (147), who placed second at the Senior World Team Trials with a strong summer season. However, Keith was a bit inconsistent last season and will need to step it up a notch to be a true star. Senior Tina Arnds (138) has a long history of success on the national level, but played second fiddle to Adams in recent seasons. Expect Arnds to come into her own this year. Another senior, Donnell Bradley (158), has also achieved national honors and spent a good part of the summer break training in Colorado Springs. Missouri Valley is loaded at 130, with seniors Kirsten Hyatt and Leigh Jaynes scoring high in the college and Senior-level rankings. This corps of veterans could set the tone for the entire program. Marianne Vollmer (121) had a great winter, winning a number of medals at major events, but she melted down at the U.S. Nationals, missing a placement. When she was hot, Vollmer showed the ability to go to a higher level. With a leadership void, will it be Vollmer, a junior, who becomes the next big-time Viking wrestler? Missouri Valley also has a powerful heavyweight, Hillary Leith (169), and experience with Rachel Bernardes (105) and Erin Soli (112). Bernardes seemed to slip last season, and will need a new focus to rise in the rankings. In spite of a smaller roster, Missouri Valley has more depth than any other team, if the top level gets injured or does not perform. Perhaps the best of the returnees are Sarah Williams (138) and Brandy Golt (147). The incoming freshman class was small, but all four were top high school prospects: Emily Rinehart of California (138), Kelly Branham of Arizona (147), Emilee Murphree of California (121) and Christie Rafanan of California (112). Perhaps it will be the performance of this freshman class that helps keep Missouri Valley on top. In the early season, the Vikings will get the nod, based upon experience and depth. The true character of this team will be tested, as their opponents will have confidence that they can knock off the king. Missouri Valley College projected starting lineup (with state, year and final '01 U.S. college ranking) 105 - Rachel Bernardes (NJ, sr., No. 8) 112 -Erin Soli (CT, soph., No. 7) 121 - Marianne Vollmer (MI, jr., No. 7) 130 - Kirsten Hyatt (CA, sr., No. 2) or Leigh Jaynes (NJ, sr., No. 3) 138 - Tina Arnds (AZ, sr., No. 4) 147 - Mollie Keith (IA, jr., No. 5) 158 - Donnell Bradley (HI, sr., No. 4) 169 - Hillary Leith (Canada, soph., No. 3) Missouri Valley College depth chart 105 - Bernardes, plus Jessica Dougherty (CA, soph.) 112 - Soli, plus Jessica Heckman (PA, soph.), Ophelia Pickard (MO, soph.), Christie Rafanan (CA, fr.), Danielle Bowen (MA, fr.), Rebecca Cisneros (IN, soph) 121 - Vollmer, plus Emilee Murphree (CA, fr.) 138 - Arnds, plus Sarah Williams (MI, soph., No. 5), Emily Rinehart (CA, fr.) 147 - Keith, plus Brandy Golt (VA, soph., No. 4), Kelly Branham (AZ, fr.) 158 - Bradley 169 - Leith CUMBERLAND COLLEGE (NAIA, Coach Kip Flanik) Cumberland boasts the best college wrestler in the nation (and in 2001, the world's best wrestler) in Toccara Montgomery (147 or 158). A World silver medalist, two-time U.S. Nationals champion, 2002 World Team member and Olympic contender, Montgomery has helped define excellence in women's wrestling. This year, coach Kip Flanik will have a team to showcase around Montgomery, after a strong recruiting year and some progress from returning individuals. Cumberland finished last year with a No. 5 college ranking in the USA. Cumberland has confidence that it can challenge to be the nation's best team this year. However, the team will have to answer some questions throughout the lineup, and continue to improve as it did throughout the rebuilding year last season. The team is bolstered by the return of Jessica Shirley (121) after missing the bulk of last season with a shoulder injury. Shirley was one of the nation's top high school athletes going into Cumberland, and has had some success on the Senior level in freestyle. Her injury cut the heart out of the Cumberland lineup last year. Her return will give the team a stronger foundation. The team should also be competitive in the lighter weights. Becky D'Ambrosio returns at 105, after a freshman year where she made progress and won a few big matches. The 112-pound spot should be a tossup between returning senior Sarah Hayes and incoming freshman Brooke Bogren of Kansas. Of the two, Bogren has achieved the most on the Senior level, and was one of the nation's top recruits. Hayes made good progress late last season, and spent considerable time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center finetuning her game. The team may need to count on another talented freshman, Alaina Berube (130 or 138). A national folkstyle champion and medalist at the Junior Nationals, Berube joined Bogren on the 2002 TheMat.com/ASICS First Team. Flanik indicates that Berube is still growing, so her weight class could change during the season. Exactly who wrestles what weight wil