Bluffton's recent string of wrestling success at the Class 3-A level is about to face what looks to be its stiffest challenge yet.
The Bobcats, like the school's other athletics programs, are making the jump into 4-A classification this season. But the tougher slate doesn't end just there, as coach John Hollman and Co. prepare to step in to what will arguably be the best region in the state this year.
"You're sitting down to a dinner table and they only put four seats there," Hollman said. "You're wondering if you've got to stand or if somebody is going to throw you some scraps, or if you're going to have to be the one to take somebody's seat."
The Bobcats will try to do the latter, but the challenge won't be easy. Fort Dorchester is ranked No. 4 in the state by SCmat.com while fellow Region 8-AAAA rival Beaufort High checks in at No. 5. Summerville is ranked No. 9 with Bluffton and Ashley Ridge rounding out the region at Nos. 14 and 15, respectively.
That's one-third of the state's top 15 teams in one region.
"Fort Dorchester and Summerville are both perennial powerhouses," Hollman said. "Beaufort might have the best team they've ever had in the history of the school this year."
The Bobcats have their fair share of recent success, too, and are stepping into their new league with something to prove. Bluffton went 20-4 a season ago, captured the Region 7-AAA title and watched as four wrestlers qualified for the state tournament.
All four of those wrestlers return for another season to help the Bobcats' transition. Austin Farmer at 132 pounds headlines the list, as the senior will look to place at the state meet for the fourth straight season, which included a runner-up finish in 2011.
Fellow state qualifiers Levi Joly (113), Lloyd Williams (120) and Michael Meyerink (138) -- all juniors -- also return to the mat for Bluffton.
"There's a lot of consolation in that and you look forward to that," Hollman said. "It also forces you to raise the bar a little bit."
The Bobcats are a relatively experienced team, as only Isai Hernandez at 220 departs from last season's roster. Bluffton's lighter weights will likely once again be the strength of the team. Nick Stead (106), Alex Waddell (138), Harry Chirinos (152) and Kyle Waddell (182) also return from last year's squad.
"You want to make sure you don't just have a few show ponies," Hollman said. "You want to make sure you have a stable of stallions. That's the one thing we've always tried to do."
However, Bluffton's region foes also bring back a wealth of experience. Beaufort High returns five state qualifiers from a season ago while Fort Dorchester and Summerville return four and three state qualifiers, respectively.
But don't expect the bar to be lowered any time soon.
"We're going to do the best we can to come in there and take somebody's seat," Hollman said. " ... Our goal is to always achieve at the highest level possible."
Coach (years at school): Jim Shuman (second year) and Nate Day (26th year)
Notable personnel losses: David Ratliff, Javon Livingston, Josh Green, Josh Knight, Christopher Bockleman
Top returning wrestlers: DeAndre Johnson (state qualifier), Jimmy Sanchez, Brian Labean, Caleb Weaver, Brayden Smith
Key newcomers: Jimmy Kearse, Milik Morgan, Ryan Lanning, Porter Mahan, Logan Hoffman and Brandon Gray
Coach's prognosis: With only four starters back from last year's team, wins will probably be hard to come by. We will not be very good in November, but if the kids keep working as hard as they have been so far, it will be fun to see them try to catch up with some of the better teams.
Coach: Bill Damude (25th year, 336-144)
2011-12 results: 29-8, 2-2 Region 8-AAAA, lost to White Knoll in the first round of the Class 4-A playoffs, finished sixth in the state at the individual tournament.
Assistant coach: Pat Schmucker
Notable personnel losses: Clayton Wynn (152 pounds, 38-13), Thyrik Legree (182 pounds. 55-10), Maliek Maldonado (220 pounds, 36-5)
Top returning wrestlers: Jake Sharp (106), Tommy Collins (126), Michael Holmes (145), Forrest Kimbrell (152), Brandon Blackmon (160), Athan Arant (160), Codrian Smalls (195), Clint Wright (220), Tyler Wilson (285)
Key newcomers: William Spann (113), Connor Lundgaard (182), Eric Blakely (170)
Coach's prognosis: Should prove to be a successful season for individuals and the team.
Coach: John Hollman (Ninth year, 185-41)
2011-12 results: 20-4 overall, 4-0 Region 7-AAA, lost in quarterfinals to St. James
Notable losses: Isai Hernandez (220)
Returning state qualifiers (qualifying weight): Jr. Levi Joly (113), Jr. Lloyd Williams (120), Sr. Austin Farmer (132), Jr. Michael Meyerink (138)
Other top returning wrestlers: Nick Stead (106), Alex Waddell (138), Harry Chirinos (152), Kyle Waddell (182)
Key newcomers: Sr. Collin Placke, Fr. Talon Sietz, Fr. Kaden Seitz
Coach's prognosis: "Our goals will always remain constant -- to be the very best competitively as we can be," Hollman said. "We will attempt as a team, and as individuals, to achieve at the region, lower state and state levels throughout the season. Bluffton wrestling as a team ... has always been a formidable opponent and we will strive to maintain our consistency."
Hilton Head Island High
Coach: Mike Newton (Seventh year, 145-51)
2011-12 results: 4-6 overall, 1-3 Region 7-AAA
Notable losses: David Waddell (106), Nick Tennison (113), Matt Johns (126), Chris Ordonez (132), Aaron Facenda (160), Nick Bautista (195)
Returning state qualifiers (qualifying weight): Label Lewis (138)
Other top returning wrestlers: Tyler Fick (113), Brock Massey (126), Hunter Massey (132), J.C. Graham (195)
Coach's prognosis: Our goal is to "have our program return to and make a deep run in the playoffs," Newton said.
Coach: Steve Broome (Fifth year overall, first at RHHS)
Key newcomers: Soph. Carlos Moreno (120), Soph. Malik Ray (145), Ashley Mitchell (285)
Coach's prognosis: "We've got no exprience and there's not an experienced wrestler on our team," Broome said. "We're building from the ground up."
Coach: Travis Wynn (First year, 0-0)
Assistant coaches: Chad Cox and Josh Duplessis
Top returning wrestlers: Max Ford (state qualifier), Mark Rivers (state qualifier)
Coach's prognosis: With a returning roster of 11 starters, there are high expectations for the upcoming season. We have two returning state qualifiers, one of whom has a strong possibility of joining the North-South all-star team.