As a walk-on on the wrestling team at Lehigh University 20 years ago, Chris Ayres quickly turned heads. In just a few short years, the New Jersey native went from not placing at the state championships in high school to becoming an All-American in college, and one of the greatest in Lehigh’s storied history.
Fast-forward 16 years after Ayres’s graduation to the present day, where he now stands as the head coach of Princeton’s wrestling team. With a return to his alma mater at the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) Championships over the weekend, Ayres’s grapplers continued where he left off in Bethlehem, Pa., by turning heads of their own.
Fighting for limited spots to the NCAA Championships next week in St. Louis, Mo., the Tigers posted strong performances across all weight classes, resulting in two finalists and six place-winners.
Sophomore 141-pounder Jordan Laster was one match away from placing in the 2014 EIWAs, but decided to improve far more than merely placing by marching all the way to the finals. Laster took out opponents from American, Bucknell and Drexel to clinch his spot in the finals against former EIWA champion Randy Cruz of Lehigh. Despite Laster’s strong offense early in the match, Cruz was able to counter well, and used his length to keep his distance in a 6-1 decision. Laster’s second-place finish was more than enough to qualify him for his first berth to NCAA's.
Further noise from the Tigers came at 149 pounds, in junior Chris Perez’s return to the EIWA Championships for the first time in three years. Seeded sixth overall, Perez beganFridayby defeating Thomas Quinlan of Franklin & Marshall by a 7-2 decision. The buzz around Perez picked up further, though, when he won another 7-2 decision over nationally-ranked Cody Ruggirello of Hofstra. With only three automatic NCAA berths allotted at 149 pounds, Perez punched his ticket to St. Louison Saturdaymorning in a dramatic semifinal victory over CJ Cobb of Pennsylvania. Down by a point in the dying seconds of the second period, Perez scored a takedown on a quick go-behind, and was able to hold a 3-1 lead during the final period to defeat the No. 8 wrestler in the country. Perez fought well in the final, but Chris Villalonga of Cornell, ranked fifth in the nation, squeaked out a 2-0 decision. Next week will also mark Perez’s first trip to NCAAs.
A number of other wrestlers found their way to the podiumon Saturday, including junior 197-pounder Abram Ayala (third), freshman 165-pounder Jonathan Schleifer (fifth), senior 157-pounder Rich Eva (eighth), and sophomore heavyweight Ray O’Donnell (eighth). Ayala’s third place performance was also good enough to qualify him for NCAAs for the second straight year. In the overall team standings, the Tigers finished in the top half of the field, with a team score of 70.0 points equating to a seventh-place finish. It is the Tigers’ best finish since 2001, when the team also finished seventh at the EIWAs in Philadelphia. The result is even more impressive considering sophomore 184-pounder Brett Harner, who was seeded third going into the tournament, was unable to wrestle due to an injury sustained earlier in the week.
As Laster, Perez and Ayala begin preparation for NCAAs, Eva, Harner, and Schleifer will wait untilWednesdayto hear if they have received individual wild cards to St. Louis.