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Princeton University wrestling vs. Binghamton, Princeton, NJ, December 10, 2016.

By Beverly Schaefer

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the Princeton wrestling team. Competing in an Ivy League dominated for decades by Cornell, as well as competing within the fiercely competitive EIWA, the Tigers have often struggled to find their place in a sport traditionally dominated by large, storied Midwestern programs. Head coach Chris Ayres, however, has turned Princeton from an insignificant contender in college wrestling to a consistent placer in the NCAA national championships, one of the most dangerous squads in the EIWA.

The Tigers found themselves facing some of the nation’s elite teams this season: Virginia Tech, Nebraska, EIWA rival Lehigh, and most notably, in-state rival Rutgers, a team that Princeton took on in the first-ever “Battle at the Birthplace," one of the largest sporting events in New Jersey history. Though Princeton lost most of their matchups against higher-ranked teams this season, their grit, determination, and talent on the mat cannot be questioned.

Later in the season, the Orange and Black smashed through the rest of the Ivy League, demolishing Penn, Harvard, Columbia, and Brown by margins of over 20 points per meet before narrowly falling to Cornell and its bevy of top-ten wrestlers in a dogged 21-12 effort. A decisive 28-9 win over Franklin and Marshall to close out the regular season allowed the Tigers to secure their fourth season in a row with over a .500 in winning percentage.

Now sitting on the edge of the postseason, this Princeton squad may be prepared to make an impact that no Tigers wrestling team ever has. Seven Princeton wrestlers are ranked nationally in the final RPI, and five are in the top 20. They’re spearheaded by senior captains Jordan Laster and all-American Brett Harner, both veterans of last year’s NCAA tournament, and outstanding freshman star Matthew Kolodzik, ranked No. 8 in the nation at 141 pounds.

Accordingly, this year’s EIWA championships holds special significance for an ambitious Princeton team. The EIWA is poised to send 43 wrestlers on to the national NCAA wrestling championships. Last year, a fifth-place Princeton was able to send four wrestlers, all of whom are now looking for a second chance to return to the national stage: Harner, Laster, senior Ray O’Donnell, and junior Jonathan Schleifer, all currently ranked nationally.

This year, the Tigers, with a very realistic chance of bettering their EIWA standings from last year, hope to send an even larger contingent out onto the mat. It will be far from an easy task. Stepping into the ring at Lewisburg, the Tigers will relive challenging matchups with Drexel, Lehigh, and Cornell, all of whom felled Princeton earlier in the season. But if there’s anything this group of wrestlers has shown us, it’s that strength of will and determination can conquer even the greatest odds.

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