Timber Creek finished last season as The Inquirer's No. 1-ranked South Jersey wrestling team, and now the expectations are not so much about defending its turf as exceeding it.

Coming off last year's South Jersey Group 3 championship, Timber Creek is looking for much more this year, beginning with another matchup against recent nemesis South Plainfield.

"Being No. 1 in South Jersey is pretty cool but we're hoping for more this year," said Timber Creek junior Brandon Keller, one of the top returning wrestlers in the state.

The Chargers have a strong nucleus returning, and the addition of some key newcomers should enable them to make a run at a state title.

Here are the key returnees:

Junior Alan Nguy was 24-11 at 103 and a District 30 champion.

Senior Ricky Carter was 14-4 at 112, was a district and Region 8 champion and placed third in the state.

Junior Brandon Virgilio was 18-8 at 119.

Junior Brandon Keller was 36-5 at 125. He is 71-8 for his career and is a two-time district and region champ who finished fifth in the state last year.

Junior Dominic Ruggiero was 30-11 at 130 and placed third in the region.

Junior Bryce Shade was 33-7 at 140 and was a district and regional champion.

Junior Keith Bauberger went 19-13 at 145.

Senior Robert Shade was 35-4 at 152 and was a district champion. He is 72-15 for his career.

In addition there are three highly regarded transfers.

Junior Greg Webb an Inquirer all-South Jersey defensive lineman, was 33-3 last season at Paul VI as a heavyweight. He was a Region 7 champion and placed eighth in the state.

Junior Isiah DeGuzman was 35-4 at 125 last season for Pennsauken, is 50-8 for his career and is expected to wrestle at 132 or 138.

Sophomore John Amato is a transfer from Camden Catholic who was third in Region 7 at 103 last year.

Despite all the hype, the heads shouldn't be inflated for the Chargers wrestlers, especially with coach Nick Cottone in control.

Cottone is literally a fighter, and his team has developed a collective toughness in his image. The 31-year-old Cottone, a former wrestler at Highland, has been down for the count this preseason with a knee injury, which means he can't wrestle at the moment in practice. (Actually a few Timber Creek wrestlers may not mind having to tangle with their coach).

Cottone competes in MMA and has a 7-2 professional record. He injured his knee while competing.

That doesn't mean the practices aren't intense, it's just that Cottone is on the sidelines and not very happy about it.

"It's killing me," he said.

Still, his team gets pushed in the practice room.

"The competition in practice really helps us in the matches," said Carter, who had to sit out the first 30 days last season after transferring from Washington Township, but eventually finished third in the state. "We have a bunch of athletes on this team and the expectations are high."

Of course getting over the proverbial hump means somehow getting past South Plainfield, which again will contend for the No. 1 spot in the state.

In 2010, after winning the South Jersey Group 3 title, Timber Creek lost to South Plainfield, by a point in the state semifinal. Last season the two tied, 25-25 in the same meet, but South Plainfield won on the No. 8 criteria - first points scored. South Plainfield edged Timber Creek, 13-12, in that department.

"We hope that we can see them again," Cottone said.

One thing that won't be seen is complacency, despite all the preseason hype. The Chargers in addition to afternoon practices can be seen running on Tuesday and Thursday mornings before class.

"We haven't accomplished anything yet," Cottone said. "We are 0-0 and you can't project yourself as a champion before you are."

Actually, the Chargers were South Jersey champions, but the goal is for much more this season.

Contact staff writer Marc Narducci at 856-779-3225, mnarducci@phillynews.com,

or @sjnard on Twitter.

Read his Rally columns