In the 2012-2013 season, the Princeton men’s wrestling team went 0-5 in Ivy League play. For the last two years they have steadily improved but have finished each year with a 3-2 record.
This year, the men’s wrestling team finally broke the dam, reaching the Ivy League Championship round in Dillon gym for the first time in three decades against perennial conference champion Cornell on Saturday. Before playing Cornell, the Tigers had been undefeated in Ivy League play, having snapped a 24-match losing streak to Penn in the process.
To get to the championships, the Tigers first had to take on a strong Columbia squad. Though the Lions won two out of the first three matches, sophomore Jonathan Schleifer, senior Abram Ayala and junior Brett Harner quickly rattled off a string of three victories for the Tigers, giving Princeton a lead it would not relinquish for the rest of the match. Though Columbia won two more matchups, further wins from freshman Pat D'Arcy and junior Jordan Laster ultimately sealed the deal for the Tigers, and Princeton triumphed handily in 23-13.
Having defeated Columbia, the Tigers faced the only other undefeated team in Ivy League play, the Cornell Big Red. It was a classic David and Goliath showdown: the traditional wrestling powerhouse against a young and talented squad which had defied expectations to reach the championship. Princeton had not wrestled for the Ivy League crown since 1986, when it had defeated Cornell right in Dillon Gym 21-19. In contrast, Cornell had not lost the Ivy League Championship since 2002. Nationally, the Cornell team had placed in the top five in the NCAA championships from 2010-2012, an unprecedented feat for an Ivy League wrestling squad and had fostered a host All-Americans and national champions. This year, their roster included the 1st-ranked wrestler in the 133-pound weight category, Nahshon Garrett.
The Tigers refused to back down from the challenge. Despite their efforts, Cornell wrestlers did win the first six out of seven matchups, led by Garrett and 6th-ranked Cornell 174-pound wrestler Brian Realbuto, effectively sealing the championship for Cornell, but the Tigers showed incredible resolve and determination, with Ayala, Harner and junior Ray O’Donnell each defeating their opponents to clinch the last three matches for Princeton (O’Donnell’s victory was an emphatic 5:35 pin). Though Princeton ultimately fell to the Big Red 23-16, the Tigers put up a hard and commendable fight against the strongest program in the Ivy League and one of the strongest in the nation.
The 2015-2016 season, the most successful for any Princeton wrestling team since the memorable 1986 season, represents a turnaround for the program. For the past 30 years, the team has struggled to make a name for itself despite its strong performance; advancing to the Ivy League championships undefeated in conference play and challenging Cornell strongly for the title should give the Tigers confidence and hope for continued future success.