The next step.

That is what Holy Spirit's Mac Mancuso embarked upon this time last season. It is what a host of South Jersey high school wrestlers look to do this season.

Mancuso, a 189-pound junior, is South Jersey's only defending state champion.

Seven others who were in the top eight in the state last season return to the mat this year, each hoping to have his feet on top of the medal stand at Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall in March.

Mancuso knows how they feel. As a freshman, he made the state semifinals and finished sixth overall in the state.

"I really had no idea what to expect," Mancuso said. "I wasn't ready for it. But I gained a lot from that experience."

Dustin Deckard, a senior at Pennsville, hopes to follow a similar path. Deckard made the state semifinals at 152 last season. In his semifinal match, Deckard recorded the first takedown against Hillsborough's Frank McLaughlin. But from that point on, McLaughlin controlled the bout and won, 9-5, thanks to what Deckard says was poor conditioning on his part.

"I wasn't in as good of a shape as I should have been," Deckard said. "Even though I was winning early in that match, I was thinking to myself, 'Wow, this is going to be a long match.' "

The semifinal loss has motivated Deckard to work harder in the off-season, especially on his cardio fitness. He picked up his 100th win Saturday at the Ewing Tournament, but then lost in the 160-pound final to Scott Kelly of Sacred Heart, 3-1, in overtime, in the final. Kelly competes in District 31 with Deckard.

"I know that even in my own district, I'm going to have tough competition," Deckard said, noting Kelly. "But that's good. I'm going to have to keep my head in the game right from the start."

For Delsea sophomore Anthony Baldosaro, training isn't a problem. Baldosaro, who will wrestle at 140 pounds this season, finished fourth in the state at 135 as a freshman.

"All summer I woke up at 9, ran, trained," Baldosaro said. "I didn't wrestle in any tournaments. But I'm always training with Anthony Luma [of Egg Harbor Township] and some guys on my team."

The training already is paying off, as Baldosaro placed second at the prestigous Beast of the East tournament over the weekend.

Luma, along with Washington Township's Anthony Curcio (119), Delsea's Luke Fedechko (130), Eastern's Hank Stinson (135), and Camden Catholic's Jackson Brady (145), round out the rest of the top returners from the 2007 state tournament. Luma, a junior, took third at 125 last season.

"After wrestling all season, I like to give myself a little break," Luma said. "Then we have to get back at it, training, working out, running. It's what you have to do."

Luma is a two-time District 32 and Region 8 champion, so his back-to-back top eight finishes in the state aren't surprising.

Deckard is approaching this season with the same do-or-die attitude. He's not planning on leaving anything on the mat.

"I don't want there to be any woulda, coulda, shoulda this year," Deckard said. "To be that close to a state title was tough for me, but now it's what I use to help me get ready for this year."

Wrestlers who make a name for themselves one season can also pin a target on their back the next. Mancuso, who finished second at the Beast of the East over the weekend, isn't concerned with his new title: defending state champ.

"I always try to be the hunter," Mancuso said. "I can't worry about what anyone else is thinking, that they are trying to hunt me. I have to go out and wrestle my match and be aggressive."

Wrestlers to Keep an Eye On

Joe Duca, Sophomore, Paulsboro, 119:

He captured District 25 and Region 8 titles in his rookie season.

Anthony Curcio, Senior, Washington Township, 119:

He was District 30 champ, Region 8 runner-up, and eighth in the state.

Luke Fedechko, Senior, Delsea, 130:

District 31 champ at 119; Region 8 runner-up went on to finish eighth in the state.

Anthony Luma, Junior, Egg Harbor Township, 130:

The two-time District 32 champ has back-to-back top-eight finishes at states.

Hank Stinson, Sophomore, Eastern, 135:

His sensational rookie season featured District 26 and Region 7 titles.

Anthony Baldosaro, Sophomore, Delsea, 140:

He was District 31 and Region 8 champ as a freshman, and second at Beast of the East.

Jackson Brady, Junior, Camden Catholic, 145:

The District 28 champion finished fifth in the state at 145.

Dustin Deckard, Senior, Pennsville, 160:

He was 34-4 and fourth in the state at 152, and earned his 100th career win Saturday.

Gerald Hodges, Junior, Paulsboro, 215:

Next in a great line of Red Raiders upperweights, he won District 32 at 171.

Mac Mancuso, Junior, Holy Spirit, 189:

South Jersey's only returning state champ took second in Beast of the East.

Five Teams to Watch

Camden Catholic

The Irish welcome back five starters from last season's Non-Public A state championship team, and coach Pete DiPol is optimistic his team will be among the top three in South Jersey. District champs Taylor Walsh, Jackson Brady and Dakota Moore form a solid nucleus. The Irish suffered a big loss when senior Mike Tully (eighth in state at 103) transferred to the Peddie School.

Paulsboro

The defending Colonial and Group 1 champs will face stiff tests from conference rival Collingswood and new Group 1 power Kittatinny. Then again, the Red Raiders always seem to do what they have to in order to stay on top. Paulsboro's lineup features returning state qualifiers Joe Duca (119), Eric Dunnet (130), and Gerald Hodges (215), along with talented freshman heavyweight Nick Curl.

Eastern

The defending District 26 champs return a ton of talent, including sophomore Hank Stinson (sixth in the state at 125). He, Mike Crowley (119), and Preston Keiffer (145) are defending Region 8 champs. The Vikings will find out where they stand early on as they face Camden Catholic Friday night in Cherry Hill.

Kingsway

The defending Group 3 and District 31 champs were hit hard by graduation, but area coaches still expect the Dragons to be among South Jersey's elite. The Dragons have state-caliber talent in Rich Bushby (125) and John Renard (135), along with 119-pound runner-up Kurtis Becker. Renard, a region champ last season, was fifth in last weekend's Beast of the East tournament.

St. Augustine Prep

The Hermits feature fantastic lightweights in Coley O'Brien (103), Brian Conley (112), A.J. Fisher (119), and C.J. Conger (125/130). The Hermits are expected to be contenders in the Cape National and District 32, and could give Camden Catholic a run in South Jersey Non-Public A.