The Janesville Craig High wrestling team lacks no motivation.

Junior Keeanu Benton qualified for the WIAA Division 1 state tournament but lost in his first match. He’s hungry for more.

Cougars seniors Nate Ellis and Ethan Smith each finished in third place at sectionals—one victory away from making state. So close, yet so far away.

When Craig opens its season with a critical Big Eight Conference dual meet Friday night against Middleton, it may send just three seniors to the mat. But that won’t change the expectations of the Cougars, who have finished top three in conference every year for more than a decade.

“They were close to accomplishing what they wanted, but they didn’t,” Craig coach Mark Mullen said of the three aforementioned wrestlers who are the team’s captains. “All three have very high aspirations for this season—wrestling in the Kohl Center and winning at the Kohl Center.

“We’re a p retty young team but a pretty tough team that I think should definitely compete in the Big Eight, and our goal going forward is we want to win the Big Eight.”

Benton (who will wrestle at 285 pounds), Ellis (138), Smith (152) and sophomore Marshall Getchell (170) return as sectional qualifiers from a year ago.

Senior Dennis Nguyen slots in between Ellis and Smith at 145 and brings plenty of varsity experience coming off an injury-plagued 2016-17. And sophomore Mayson Maclennan, who suffered a gruesome elbow injury early as a freshman, will give the lineup a boost with his return.

“Dennis is a tough kid that works hard every night, and we’re happy to have him back. We expect him to really make a contribution,” Mullen said. “Mayson, we’re happy to have him back, and he’s been working hard in the offseason.”

And freshmen Joey Coulter (106) and Brady Schenk (220) could make immediate contributions.

Mullen expects Sun Prairie and Middleton to once again be the Cougars’ toughest road blocks to a conference title, which is why Friday’s season-opening dual against Middleton is so important.

Win, and the Cougars will likely face Sun Prairie at the Big Eight Showcase for the regular-season conference title. Lose, as Craig did to Sun Prairie in an opening dual last year, and the Cougars will be relegated to battling for third.

“Those are our big rivals, as usual,” Mullen said. “We’re looking forward to trying to match up with them.

“We know we’re young, with only seven guys with varsity experience. But we have high expectations every year. It’s been first or second just about every single year I’ve been coach. So our team goal is compete with everyone and hopefully win conference and get guys to the Kohl Center.”

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