Princeton head wrestling coach Christopher Ayres doesn’t mince words.
On the public perception of wrestlers’ weight-management techniques: “Laughable.”
On sharing the title of Ivy League Coach of the Year with Cornell’s Rob Koll: “Unfortunate.”
On the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s seeding for its March 21st national tournament, via tweet: “NCAA wrestling is a joke.”
Two weeks ago, six Princeton wrestlers qualified for the NCAA tournament. On Thursday at noon in the Pittsburgh PPG Arena, each of them will begin his three-day quest for glory.
Princeton’s last — and only — NCAA Champion was Bradley Glass ’53. But to Ayres’ mind, his top three wrestlers could all leave Pittsburgh with titles.
“Pat Glory can do anything. Pat Brucki’s unstoppable. And Kolodzik has a clutch-gene,” he said.
That ambition is characteristic of Ayres — now in his 13th year as head coach — and is reflective of how far the team has come under his guidance. He has turned Princeton’s once-flailing program into a national powerhouse. For the Tigers, this is a competition more than a decade in the making.
Ten years ago, the Tigers went 0–18 for the season. This year, the team sits at an all-time high No. 19 in the NWCA Coaches Ranking. The last time Princeton so much as produced multiple All-Americans in a season was 1985. This year, conservative estimates have it leaving Pittsburgh with three. Princeton has never placed in the tournament. Ayres is striving this weekend for a top-ten finish, and his athletes one-up him.
“Top-ten?” Laughed Glory in a March 12 interview. “Top-five.”
Princeton’s wrestlers are strong, tough, and, crucially, healthy. Only one factor could complicate their road to victory: their seedings.
Those seedings are decided by a panel of coaches, not an outside authority. It is a system that Ayres calls “absurd,” and one that, to his mind, has robbed some of his wrestlers of the rewards they deserve.
Sophomore Patrick Brucki, who stayed largely stable at the No. 3 position during the regular season, enters the 197-pound bracket seeded fourth. That will pit him against the University of North Carolina’s No. 29 Brandon Whitman in the opener, and probably the University of Iowa’s No. 5 Jacob Wamer in the quarterfinals. Assuming the results stay true to the rankings, Brucki will advance to the semifinals. Therein lies his challenge.
His seeding means he might face Penn State’s No. 1 Bo Nickal on Friday night. Senior Nickal has advanced to the NCAA final in each of his seasons so far. This weekend, he will be seeking his third straight national title. For Brucki to top Nickal will take a phenomenal effort — one that will electrify the wrestling world. If he falls short, he will have to battle for third. But he is far from worried.
“I have faith in my training and my preparation,” he said. “Now we just have to let instincts take over.”
Junior Matthew Kolodzik sits at No. 5 in the 149-pound weight class. He will face American University’s No. 28 Michael Sprague in the opener. That is a match he should win. But he might not.
His banner undefeated season has recently turned spottier. He has fallen thrice — to Rutgers’ No. 1 Anthony Ashnault, to Drexel’s Parker Kropman, and to Navy’s No. 18 Jared Prince — in the past month. Kropman is a particularly notable victor; the unranked Drexel wrestler sits at the third-lowest ranking in the NCAA tournament.
Even if Kolodzik does regain his footing and best Sprague, the quarterfinals could see him facing the University of Pennsylvania’s No. 13 Anthony Artalona. On February 16, Kolodzik scraped by Artalona, 7–5. The face off was not decided until its final seconds; this weekend’s rematch could be anyone’s game.
And if Kolodzik manages to pull off a victory against Artalona, the semifinals pose an even greater threat. There, he will theoretically meet with Ashnault, to whom Kolodzik suffered a particularly humiliating 10–2 loss on Feb. 3.
Ayres remains ever-confident in Kolodzik’s abilities. But the wrestler will have contend with two obstacles: the physical challenge of a three-day tournament and the mental challenge of his star-studded lineup. If Kolodzik overcomes whatever hurdles have been recently crippling him, he could make a run at an NCAA title. If not, he could be out in the first round.
No. 7 first-year Patrick Glory will open against Ohio State’s No. 26 Malik Heinselman, then likely face Oklahoma State’s No. 2 Nicholas Piccininni in the quarterfinals. On Jan. 12, Piccininni earned a 10–4 decision over Glory.
But Glory’s season has shown steady and remarkable improvement. A perfect example is his record against his potential semifinals rival, Iowa’s No. 2 Spencer Lee. On Nov. 16, Lee earned an 18–2 technical fall against Glory. When the two faced a month later, Glory lost again — but this time, only 12–6.
“What he does on the mat is just un-coachable,” said Ayres. In a Feb. 26 interview, Ayres called Glory “one of the best — if not the best” first-years he’d ever seen.
Princeton’s three other wrestlers — first-years Travis Stefanik and Quincy Monday, and junior Kevin Parker — are seeded 31st, 26th, and 31st, respectively. Stefanik and Parker will both open against their brackets’ two-seeds. Monday will open against Old Dominion’s No. 7 Larry Early, to whom he suffered a 4–2 loss in his first collegiate tournament.
“I know how much better Quincy’s gotten this year,” said Ayres. “And it’s about four points better.”
In all, despite Ayres’ frustration at the seeding system — and his initial ire at its results — he does not doubt that his team can accomplish its dreams.
“Anything can happen,” he said. “These seedings, these brackets — they all blow up. I can’t even express how good I feel right now. I’m so excited.”
His athletes feel the same way. They are nervous, well aware of the challenges they will face over the next three days. But they have trained for this weekend for their whole season, if not their whole careers. They are itching to prove themselves.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment my whole life,” said Glory. “I’m grateful that I have the capability to do what I love to do.”
Ever succinct, Brucki put it best.
“I’m just excited,” he said. “Feeling like it’s Christmas Eve.”