As the wrestling team heads into the final competition of its season, it faces perhaps its most daunting challenge. The Tigers must travel to Lehigh in Bethlehem, Pa., and take on 14 of the best teams in the region for the opportunity to participate in the NCAA championship in two weeks.
Any spectator at the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association tournament, which will be contested today and tomorrow, might note the team's ordinary 9-11 record and scoff at its chances to succeed in the tournament. After all, Princeton did lose eight straight matches before closing out the season with a win over Wagner.
Just don't tell the Tigers they don't have a chance.
Call it optimism. Call it faith. Call it the predictable naivete of a young team. Whatever the case, these Tigers believe they can cause some damage.
"We'll shock some people for sure," freshman Juan Venturi said. Judging by some outstanding individual performances during this often frustrating season, that statement doesn't seem too far-fetched.
The question remains whether Princeton's wrestlers can perform their best against tougher competition. Can sophomore Ryan Bonfiglio wrestle this weekend as tough as he wrestled Brown's highly touted Alex Ottanio Feb. 7? Can freshman Jeff Bernd excel like he did in December's Penn State Open, where he finished fifth in the 142-pound class?
After two weeks of intense practices, the Tigers believe they can do it. Following assistant coach Paul Collier's decision to implement optional morning workouts into the daily practice schedule, many of the Tigers have woken up at dawn to hone their attacks and counters to perfection.
Head coach Michael New hopes the extra training will instill a fiery spirit in his wrestlers, if nothing else.
"What's going to win us some matches isn't strength or technique," said New. "It's energy and enthusiasm. Our guys are mentally fresh and ready to wrestle."
In addition to their enthusiasm, some of the team's wilier wrestlers can rely on their impromptu scouting tactics to maintain an advantage.
"(My opponent) may tap his nose or blink his eye before he shoots," said Venturi, who has arisen at 6:30 a.m. the past two weeks to workout. "Then I watch what he does on top to see how to get out."
Led by Venturi and his 13-4 record, many of the Tigers have the capability to wrestle with anyone in the region. And even if Princeton falters in the tournament, the experience should add yet another layer of maturity to the freshman-heavy roster.
"It's the ultimate test," said Bernd. "It's the end of the year. If you lose, you're done. We need to develop the attitude that if you win, (your opponent) is out. That's got a lot to do with preparation."