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When senior wrestler Paul Hartt first came to Lakeland College in 2004 from Port Charlotte, Fla., the wrestling program was still taking baby steps.
But with a lot of hard work and dedication, he has been a big part of helping put Lakeland on the map as one of the up-and-coming Division III wrestling schools in the nation, as the Muskies earned their first-ever team national ranking at No. 28 earlier this season.
But Hartt isn't quite finished leaving his mark.
Hartt, ranked No. 3 in the nation in the 197-pound division, will compete March 7-8 at the NCAA Division III National Tournament in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he will fight to realize his goal of becoming an All-American and, possibly, even more.
"My first goal is to become an All-American, but I would definitely love to win the national title," said Hartt, who has an amazing 36-1 record this season, along with the 197-pound titles at the Great Lakes Regional and in the Northern Wrestling Association. "I think I have an equal opportunity as some of the others to win it."
The top eight finishers in each weight class are named All-Americans, and Hartt may have a legitimate chance of joining that elite group, as he received the No. 3 seed in his weight class. He will face Eric Vincent of Merchant Marine Academy when the first round of competition begins on Friday at 11 a.m. To access links to the complete seeding results and 2008 national tournament brackets, please click here.
Although Hartt's impressive 2007-08 season has given him a great deal of confidence heading to the national stage, he had an idea that he could compete at this level all along.
"I had expectations of it last year, but it kind of got cut short," said Hartt, who finished fourth at regionals, just out of qualifying for nationals. "This year, starting off by beating a nationally-ranked guy kind of sparked it, then I had a national ranking that stood behind me and what I was doing."
Hartt's head-turning 4-2 victory over UW-Stevens Point's Craig Bollig, ranked No. 4 in the nation at the time while Hartt was still unranked, helped his team upset the Pointers, 31-11, for one of their most memorable victories of the year. Even more than that, the match gave Hartt confidence to realize his true potential this season - potential that nearly went unrecognized in the early stages of his career.
Hartt did not actually start wrestling until his junior year of high school, but was instantly hooked and wasn't ready for it to end when high school came to a close. Hartt's high school coach, former Purdue University wrestler Evan Robinson, knew Lakeland head coach Pete Rogers through wrestling camps they had done together, and facilitated the connection.
"He saw that I was trying to build a program, and he called me to tell me that he had a guy that had a lot of talent," Rogers said. "Paul and his dad flew up here and liked the campus, and his dad thought it might be a good idea to get him out of Florida to experience something new."
Following the advice of his father and Robinson, Hartt landed over 1,400 miles away from home in the fall of 2004 to begin his degree in resort management and join the Muskies' wrestling team.
"My high school coach knew that Pete had the potential to be a great coach, and he thought that the program would be a good fit for me," Hartt said. "I definitely wanted to keep wrestling in college, and Lakeland provided me with a way to do that. I didn't even really look at any other schools."
Although Hartt went just 7-19 his freshman year on the mat, Rogers recognized his untapped potential.
"I saw he had the ability to get a long way," Rogers said. "It's nice to be able to say that he started at the bottom and got to the level he is at during his time at Lakeland. I don't think there are many coaches around that can say they had someone who made that drastic of a change from freshman to senior year. It's exciting to see that he was able to get from a low level to about the highest level you can possibly get in Division III wrestling in four years."
The first year may have been tough on Hartt, being so far from home and family in a completely different climate. But, thanks to the strong bonds he developed with his teammates, Hartt stuck it out.
"He's the type of kid that would never give up on anything," Rogers said. "There were probably a lot of times where it would have been easy for him to go home, but he chose to stick it out and work hard to accomplish something. He's just such a coachable guy. He did the right things all the time and never questioned anything."
"I have no family up here, so my teammates kind of act like my brothers and my coaches are like my parents away from home," Hartt said.
Hartt is Lakeland's only qualifier in the national tournament, but many of his teammates continued to show up at practice last week to help him prepare.
"The guys that have still been coming in to practice and have been really good about supporting me," Hartt said. "They push me and cheer me on to keep going, which really helps out rather than just practicing alone."
Although it will be just Hartt and the coaches this week, as the rest of the team is no longer allowed to practice with him, Rogers hopes that facing several of his teammates last week will have helped Hartt reach a new level.
"I think he has his goals set high, he believes in himself right now and the sky's the limit," Rogers said. "It's a tough tournament, but he's at that level. I expect a lot out of him, just as I have all year, and I believe he has the ability to get it done. He's right where he needs to be in order to challenge to be the best. I know that no matter what happens, he will leave it all on the mat."
Rogers has also seen how having one of his wrestlers make the national tournament has changed the mindsets of some of his other wrestlers, and feels he has conquered a major hurdle.
"It's a relief for me as a coach to get Paul in the national tournament," Rogers said. "I feel like we missed a couple of opportunities last year and had a few other people not make it this year, but Paul got it done. I think somebody doing something like this can change a program because the other guys have seen first hand how Paul got to such an elite level, so they know how to get it done now. I have a feeling it's going to make coaching a lot easier for me because they know where they are capable of getting."
Although Hartt will be the lone Muskie on the mat this weekend with the rest of his team supporting him from the stands, he intends to get into the rhythm of a normal match as quickly as possible.
"The biggest thing for me is getting out there and winning my first match to get the ball rolling," Hartt said. "I think my nerves will calm down after that, and it will feel like any other tournament I have been in this year. I just need to keep wrestling the way I have been all year."