Princeton wrestling traveled to Ithaca, New York, last weekend with one goal in mind: to put an end to No. 10 Cornell’s (10–2 overall, 5–0 Ivy) 16-year reign over the Ivy League.
Since the day in 2006 when head coach Chris Ayres assumed control of Princeton’s floundering program, he has worked tirelessly to make a name for his team. Ayres’s first two seasons, the Tigers went 0–35. They earned losing records each winter until 2013. There, for Ayres, appeared a first glimmer of hope.
Princeton made steady, albeit slow, progress for the next two years. In 2015, it sent five wrestlers to the NCAA Championships, matching a program record. The next year, Ayres produced his first All-American: Brett Harner, who finished ninth in the nation.
2017 brought a breakthrough. Princeton placed third in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association Championships. Six wrestlers qualified for the NCAA Championships, where, led by a first-year, All-American Matthew Kolodzik, Princeton earned its first top-25 finish since 1985.
The next year saw the addition of standout Patrick Brucki, who joined Kolodzik at the NCAAs. Kolodzik placed third and repeated as an All-American, becoming Princeton’s sixth wrestler ever to do so.
So far, this wrestling season has served as payoff for Ayres’s last 12 grueling years. Princeton boasts three ranked wrestlers — No. 10 first-year Pat Glory, No. 2 Kolodzik, and No. 3 Brucki — on its roster. The team has made history time and time again. It recorded record-breaking wins against Rider University (8–5) and No. 21 Lehigh (7–9). Princeton had never left the Ken Kraft Midlands Championships with a victor. This year, it produced two.
In short: if there were a year Princeton could steal the Big Red’s throne, this would be it. The team’s wrestlers thought so, too.
However, in a stunning showing, Cornell dominated Princeton 34–7. The meet opened with a face-off between sophomore Dale Tiongson and Cornell’s Andrew Berreyesa at 165. Two minutes and 22 seconds into the first period, Berreyesa won by fall.
“Dale got thrown the first match,” Kolodzik said, “and after that, it was like dominoes.”
First-year Travis Stefanik faced No. 14 Brandon Womack, a returning All-American, in the 174-pound division. Late in the first period, Stefanik found himself down 0–6. He kept his cool. By the end of the third, he had clawed his way to just a two-point deficit, bringing the score to 5–7. Cornell still earned the win, but Stefanik had put up a gutsy fight.
“Other than the beginning sequence, Travis outwrestled that guy,” Ayres said. “When he opens up and wrestles, I really think he could be an All-American. Even though it was a loss, it gave him a little confidence.”
The Big Red’s win streak continued, as Cornell’s No. 12 Max Dean won by technical fall against junior Kevin Parker.
But then it was time for the 197-weight class, and the team crossed its fingers for a turnaround. Taking the mat was the undefeated Brucki — one of Princeton’s most reliable talents.
In a shocking turn of events, he let up an early lead to fall 7–6 to No. 14 Ben Honis. It was then that Princeton knew it was in trouble.
“We think of Brucki as being invincible,” Stefanik said. “He pulls out every match; he’s so consistent. When he loses, it means something’s off.”
In quick succession, Cornell’s wrestlers worked their way through Princeton’s roster. Sophomore Kendall Elfstrum lost by major decision. No. 10 Glory lost by fall to No. 11 Vitali Arujau. Sophomore Jonathon Gomez caved to No. 13 Chas Tucker. And Cornell’s returning NCAA Champion, No. 1 Yianni Diakomihalis, bested first-year Marshall Keller 14–6.
In all, Princeton walked away with only two victories: a decision from Kolodzik and a major decision by first-year Quincy Monday.
Cornell had earned its 17th straight Ivy League title. The legacy continues.
To Princeton’s wrestlers and their coaches, part of the reason for the defeat was obvious.
“We trained really intensely the same week as the dual, which is a little bit foolhardy for match preparation,” Kolodzik explained. But wrestling is as much about mental toughness as about physical prowess. And after Princeton’s first few losses, Kolodzik said, “the morale just wasn’t there.”
Even after the team’s week of grueling training and its crushing defeat, Princeton’s wrestlers could not rest. On Sunday, they faced Columbia University (7–4, 1–2). Monday, Stefanik, Parker, Brucki, and Glory contributed to the Tigers’ 20–16 win.
The four-point margin was a lackluster end to an unsatisfying weekend.
“We thought we would blow them out of the water,” Stefanik said. “We definitely didn’t wrestle our best.”
But to no Princeton wrestler is the Columbia meet a focal point of the 2018-2019 season. Their eyes remain set on Cornell, whom the team will face twice more: at EIWAs on March 8, and at NCAAs on March 21. And next time, they will be better prepared.
“We don’t peak for the Cornell dual,” Kolodzik said. “We peak for the EIWA tournament. It won’t be easy; everybody will have to be firing on all cylinders. But we’re going to beat them at EIWAs. I believe in the guys and I believe in myself.”
With a sigh, Ayres agreed.
“We really wanted to beat Cornell. We really thought we had a team that could beat them. But we’re going to keep working. Our time is going to come.”