Back in the fall, Chris Ayres and his coaching staff established the mantra of “In the Hunt” for the 2014-15 wrestling season. Ayres’s grapplers lived up to that standard over the course of the season. After qualifying just one wrestler for NCAA Championships in 2014, the Tigers tied a program record by sending five individuals — half of the starting lineup — to this year’s championships in St. Louis, Mo. All five wrestlers — junior 197-pounder Abram Ayala, junior 149-pounder Chris Perez, sophomore 184-pounder Brett Harner, sophomore 141-pounder Jordan Laster and freshman 165-pounder Jonathan Schleifer — advanced to the second day of double-elimination competition.
Returning to NCAAs for the second straight year, Ayala held the seventh seed at 197 pounds after knocking off multiple ranked opponents over the course of the season. A strong 3-2 decision over Old Dominion’s Kevin Beazley put Ayala in the pre-quarters against returning All-American Conner Hartmann of Duke. Despite a quick takedown in the first period, Ayala was unable to handle the Blue Devil’s strength on top and fell in a 5-2 decision. In an attempt to wrestle back for All-American status, Ayala fell against Cornell’s Jace Bennett, falling just short of an outstanding comeback after falling behind early.
In his first outing at NCAAs, Perez built off his second-place performance at the EIWA Championships to wrestle well against a number of tough opponents. Facing Old Dominion’s Alex Robertson in the first round, Perez fell behind early after surrendering a takedown and back points to the eighth seed. A valiant comeback came just short for Perez, as he fell 8-6 and moved to the consolation bracket. After winning via medical forfeit in his first consolation, Perez posted an impressive 10-6 decision over Ken Theobold of Rutgers. The victory not only advanced Perez to among the final 16 wrestlers alive in his weight class, but was a piece of sweet revenge for him against nationally-ranked Theobold, who he had lost to in a close bout in February. Just two wins shy of All-American status, Perez’s ride at NCAA’s came to an end against another New Jersey opponent, this time in the form of Rider’s Bryant Clagon. After falling behind early, Perez posted an impressive comeback to tie the match in the third period, but Clagon used a late takedown to seal an 8-6 decision and advance.
After being unable to wrestle at EIWAs due to injury and receiving an at-large bid to NCAA’s, Harner faced the Herculean task of trying to wrestle the nation’s best with a foot injury sustained just two weeks before. After falling to Wisconsin’s Ricky Robertson in a close 4-0 decision, Harner made sure that he would live to see Day 2 of competition by dominating West Virginia’s Jakob Scheffel in the first consolation round. Harner unfortunately drew Nebraska’s TJ Dudley in the second consolation round, where he fell 9-0 to the eventual eighth-place finisher at 184 pounds.
After turning heads by marching all the way to the finals of EIWAs, Laster continued to turn heads by advancing the furthest of any Tiger in the NCAA Championships. Wrestling in the pigtail round on Thursday morning, Laster battled his way to an impressive 4-2 decision over Rider’s Chuck Zeisloft in sudden victory. Laster’s luck did not continue in his next match, as he drew three-time defending national champion Logan Stieber of Ohio State. Stieber defeated Laster by technical fall, and would eventually go on to capture his fourth national championship, becoming just the fourth wrestler in NCAA Division I history to do so. Laster turned it on in wrestle backs, though. Down by two points against Michigan’s George Fisher, Laster scored a crucial takedown to take the lead in the dying seconds of the third period to advance to Friday’s competition. After winning via medical forfeit in the second consolation round, Laster took out Nick Lawrence of Purdue in a hard-fought 3-2 decision. Despite peaking at exactly the right time in the season, Laster’s effort fell short in the Round of 12 against Virginia Tech’s Devin Carter. Carter, the returning national runner-up at 141 pounds, had been upset early in competition, and proved too much for Laster in an 18-7 major decision that clinched him All-American status for the third and final time of his college career.
On the wings of a terrific regular season, one that earned him Princeton’s first ever Ivy League Rookie of the Year honor, Schleifer drew a tough opening match against third-seeded Isaac Jordan of Wisconsin. Schleifer would fall 9-3 but rebounded with a strong win later in the day against Adam Fierro of Cal-State Bakersfield. Eventual All-American Nick Sulzer lay waiting for Schleifer on Friday morning, though, and knocked him out of the tournament with a major decision.
In a season that saw six starters place at EIWAs, in addition to five qualifying and winning matches at NCAAs, the Tigers further elevated the program’s reputation on a national level. But there is little doubt that jumps of similar magnitude lie in the cards for the Tigers next season. While the team will miss the leadership it received from its senior starters in 125-pounder Ryan Cash and 157-pounder Rich Eva, the Tigers will return eight of their ten starters, including all five NCAA qualifiers. After going toe to toe with the nation’s best on a team and individual level this winter, the Tigers look poised to launch themselves into the national spotlight next season with a veteran core and a lineup that is hungry and gifted from top to bottom. What’s more, next season holds special significance for Chris Ayres’s squad: the EIWA Championships return to Jadwin Gymnasium, and the NCAA Championships will be held just a short train ride away in the Big Apple, hosted at Madison Square Garden. With talent and experience from the 2014-15 season meeting vast opportunity for the 2015-16 campaign, the possibilities for Ayres’s squad are endless, and Old Nassau could soon see the greatest season its grapplers have ever produced.