After an impressive trouncing of Maryland and Buffalo at the Madison Square Garden Grapple in the Garden, the No. 25 Tigers headed to Lincoln this weekend for another pre-season test as they took part in the Nebraska Duals, hosted by the University of Nebraska. Though the Tigers wrestled well, ultimately they fell short of high expectations, losing to the Drexel Dragons and the No. 7 Nebraska Cornhuskers while defeating the Michigan State Spartans.
The Tigers opened up their invitational with a dual against fellow EIWA rival Drexel. Despite being underdogs, however, the Dragons opened the match confidently and grabbed four of the first six matches. Princeton fought back tenaciously; all five of Princeton’s ranked wrestlers on the mat — senior captains Jordan Laster and Brett Harner, senior Ray O’Donnell, junior Jonathan Schleifer, and standout freshman Matthew Kolodzik — won their matches. Laster’s victory was especially impressive, as the No. 18 senior felled No. 11 Matthew Cimato, who finished third at the EIWA championships last year and qualified for the NCAA championships. Though each side won five matches a piece, ultimately it was the Tigers who fell short and took a heartbreaking 17-15 loss.
Princeton quickly rebounded for a resounding 25-15 victory over Big Ten school Michigan State in their second match of the day. The Tigers won six out of ten matchups against the Spartans, with all five of the victorious Princeton wrestlers against Drexel scoring their second wins of the day on the mat. In the most exciting bout of the match, Kolodzik shined again as he took on Michigan State’s sole ranked contender, No. 11 Javier Gasca, an NCAA championship competitor.
The Tigers had little time to rest on their laurels, however, as they headed to their final match on the mat against a strong top-10 squad, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Last year, Nebraska trounced Princeton in the Grapple at the Garden; this year, unfortunately, the Tigers took another hard 27-6 loss, as Nebraska simply proved too tough for the Tigers to handle. Ultimately, the Cornhuskers, who rolled out eight ranked wrestlers, including five in the national top-10, would claim eight out of the 10 matches contested that day. There were bright spots in the day, however, with both Schleifer and Kolodzik claiming their third victories of the day on the mat, both against ranked opponents. Kolodzik’s sudden-death 8-6 victory against No. 11 Husker Colton McCrystal was especially a thriller.
Despite this slight disappointment in their first tournament as a ranked team this season, the Tigers remain optimistic for their next matches. The Tigers will be looking to shift their mentality and confidence as a team to prepare for upcoming matches. While Coach Ayres is confident in his team’s technical ability, he commented, “Not sure why, but we wrestled very flat this past weekend … We were going through the motions and lacked the toughness to beat a team like Nebraska, which was certainly possible. I am very confident in the guys in our lineup, but they are wrestling too cautiously, and not imposing their will on their opponents. They are out there simply trying to execute technique, but the effort and fight behind the technique is not enough.” It’s an issue Laster, who came away from this weekend with two wins, agrees with. In addition to working on technical areas the wrestlers struggled on, Laster noted that, “We want to improve … by being more offensive so that we can strike fear in our opponents.”
The Tigers next face a tough challenge in a road trip to perennial EIWA powerhouse Lehigh before returning home to host the Binghamton Bears. Though it’s a tough combo to stomach, Coach Ayres thinks with just reason that his wrestlers are prepared for the challenge as they gain more confidence in their abilities and will step up on the mat no matter who their opponent is. “We throw them in the ‘fire’ with the intention on making adjustments and figuring out how to compete, and, beat the best wrestlers in the country.”