It was just after 3 p.m. in Jadwin Gymnasium on Tuesday. The NCAA had released its full list of qualifiers for the national wrestling tournament in March, and Princeton’s wrestling coaches were screaming.
Associate Head Coach Sean Gray pumped his fist into the air. “We’ve got six!” he yelled.
First-years Travis Stefanik, Patrick Glory, and Quincy Monday, sophomore Patrick Brucki, and juniors Matthew Kolodzik and Kevin Parker had all earned tickets to Pittsburgh’s March 21 NCAA wrestling tournament.
Glory, Monday, Brucki, and Kolodzik’s performances at last weekend’s Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association championships had qualified them for automatic bids. Based on the wrestlers’ season win percentage, record against head-to-head competitors, conference tournament placement, and coaches ranking, Stefanik and Parker earned two of only 45 at-large bids to Pittsburgh.
Princeton’s six NCAA-bound wrestlers are just one fewer than the program’s 2017 all-time high of seven. And though head coach Chris Ayres is “really excited” about what his sextet will accomplish come nationals, the statistic is bittersweet.
This season, No. 19 Tiger wrestling has pulled off historic wins against No. 20 Lehigh (9–9) and Rider (8–5). Its roster includes three ranked wrestlers – No. 4 Kolodzik, No. 4 Brucki, and No. 7 Glory. 70% of the team’s starting roster earned All-Ivy honors. Princeton had never left the Ken Kraft Midlands Championships with a victor. This year, it left with two.
Heading into the EIWA conference tournament, said Ayres, “I thought we had a team that could take it all.”
The first day of competition did nothing but boost Ayres’ hopes.
Glory bested both of his opponents by fall – two and four minutes into their matches, respectively. Kolodzik logged a 17–2 technical fall in his first round and pinned his quarterfinal rival Glory-style. Monday posted a major decision and a win-by-fall. EIWA No. 10 junior Leonard Merkin cemented his status as the ultimate wild card; he defeated the tournament’s seventh and second-ranked wrestlers. Six-seed Stefanik pinned his first opponent and earned an 11–7 upset decision against Army’s No. 3 Brock Harvey. Brucki walked away with a 16–1 technical fall and a decision under his belt.
Even those wrestlers who suffered a loss in the first two sessions – juniors Obinna Ajah and Kevin Parker, first-year Marshall Keller, and sophomore Jonathan Gomez – rallied to win their consolation matches. Thanks to that roster-wide dominance and a run of bonus points, Princeton sent all of its 10 wrestlers to the second day of competition. With 82 points, Princeton was tied with Cornell for second place.
“I woke up Saturday morning and really believed we were going to win the tournament,” said Ayres.
Reality would prove more bleak.
Gomez, Keller, Monday, Merkin, Stefanik, and Ajah all fell in their third round. And two-time EIWA champion Kolodzik, who started his season with a two-month undefeated run and ranked No. 1 in the country at 149 pounds, fell short in a dramatic 5–4 match against Navy’s No. 16 Jared Prince.
This is Kolodzik’s third loss in under a month. After each one, his teammates and his coaches have offered the same reassurance: They are not worried about his chances to win an NCAA title. When the moment really matters, the crowd is loud, the lights are bright, and the stakes are high, he will pull through. He is, they insist, a postseason wrestler.
But this was postseason, and he fell short yet again.
“We had some words after the match,” said Ayres. “Kolodzik has an engineering mind, but there’s an art to wrestling. He’s not good at getting creative. He looks to the coaches too much. That has to change. He is his own best coach. He knows how to win. He has to learn to rely on himself and no one else.”
But the day was not all bad; Patrick Glory and Patrick Brucki both avenged their stinging losses at Cornell earlier this season. Glory controlled the last two periods of his match against No. 8 Vitali Aruau to earn a 10–8 decision and a conference title. Brucki overcame an early lead from No. 7 Ben Honis, scoring a takedown with 21 seconds remaining to post an 8–6 victory and join Glory on the winners’ podium.
Those highlights weren’t enough to compensate for the team’s earlier failures. Princeton finished the day with 122.5 points, 16.5 points behind Cornell and 30.5 behind Lehigh.
It was disappointing for Princeton’s coaches – and especially its wrestlers, who had hoped to revenge their trouncing by Cornell three weeks ago. But the Tigers will have one more chance, and Ayres has nothing but full faith in his wrestlers headed to Pittsburgh.
“We have a team that can place in the top ten,” he said. “I know Kolodzik can win an NCAA title. I know Pat Brucki can win an NCAA title. I know Pat Glory keeps getting better. I know what my guys are capable of.”
But Ayres’ ambitions – lofty for a team currently ranked No. 19 in the country – pale in comparison to his wrestlers.
“I’ve been going to NCAAs for the past four years, just waiting,” said Glory. “Now it’s time. Top ten? Top five. Anything can happen in March.”