Faced with a question about his team’s depth three months ago, Princeton head wrestling coach Christopher Ayres hesitated.
“We have three phenomenal wrestlers,” he said. Here came the pause. “And then there’s a lower tier — three or four guys — who are close to that level. If they can make the jump, they’ll turn our team from good to incredible.”
Three of the wrestlers representing Princeton this weekend at the NCAA Championships belong to that top cadre. First-year Patrick Glory, sophomore Patrick Brucki, and junior Matthew Kolodzik are all top-seven seeds in their brackets.
The other three athletes in Pittsburgh — first-years Quincy Monday and Travis Stefanik and junior Kevin Parker — are seeded 26th, 31st, and 31st. The first day of competition at the PPG Paints Arena offered them a chance to prove that they could make Ayres’ jump — that they could turn their great team into a legendary one.
But as the day progressed, the stratification of Princeton’s team became more and more pronounced. For only the second time in program history, the Tigers ended the day with three wrestlers in the quarterfinals. Monday, Stefanik, and Parker were not so lucky. Their seasons and their dreams of All-American status ended on that day.
125-pound No. 7 Glory opened the tournament with a merciless 16–0 technical fall against Chattanooga’s No. 26 Alonzo Allen. The win sent him to the afternoon session, where he made quick work of North Dakota State University’s No. 10 Brent Fleetwood.
After the 10–0 major decision, Glory sprinted off the mat. There, he met assistant coach Joe Dubuque, himself a two-time national champion at 125 pounds. Dubuque held Glory’s head to his own.
“You can win this whole thing,” he said. “You can win this whole thing.”
Does seventh-seeded Glory agree? “Yeah,” he said with a laugh. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”
Glory will need more than his usual confidence to clinch a title. His quarterfinal opponent is Oklahoma State’s formidable No. 2 Nicholas Piccininni, 30–0 on the season. The wrestlers last met on Jan. 12, when Piccininni walked away with a 10–4 decision.
Princeton’s next wrestler proved less willing than Glory to put on a show. No. 5 Kolodzik narrowly edged American University’s No. 28 Michael Sprague in the opener, posting just one escape and one takedown to walk away with a 3–2 decision.
It was enough to propel him to the next round, where he faced Penn State’s No. 12 Brady Berge. Two takedowns and an escape gave Princeton’s wrestler a 7–3 lead with only a minute left in the match.
That last chaotic minute saw two out-of-bounds violations from Kolodzik; Berge’s two free points brought him a takedown away from tying the match. Kolodzik, however, held on, earning a spot in the quarterfinals.
“He makes life hard,” said Ayres. “He wrestled awesome for two periods, then he just stopped wrestling. He got sloppy. He can’t be doing that. 3–2, 7–5? Come on. He needs to get more aggressive.”
Kolodzik made no excuses. “I’m not proud of what I did out there,” he said. “It’s not a technical problem; I need to get out of my defensive mindset. But I know that every match, I flip the switch more and more. I’ll be at full throttle soon.”
No. 4 Brucki, Princeton’s heaviest standout, was the last of its wrestlers to take the mat. He trounced University of North Carolina’s Brandon Whitman 8–1 to advance to the afternoon session, where he met North Carolina State’s No. 13 Malik McDonald.
Against McDonald, Princeton wrestling fans expected Brucki to display his trademark dominance.
He did not.
Brucki’s only takedown came in the first period. He logged an escape late in the second, then failed to score for the entirety of the third. The hard-fought battle ended in a 3–2 decision — a shocking margin for a wrestler who has beaten his opponents this season by an average of 8.4 points.
The referee raised Brucki’s arm; he sprinted off the mat.
“I don’t know what he was doing out there,” said Ayres seconds after the match ended. “He can’t just sit there and do nothing. If he wants it, he needs to take it.”
And then, with shake of his head: “He’s got to stop pretending that he is somebody. He ain’t anybody yet.”
Still, regardless of how they’d done it, three of Princeton’s wrestlers had made it to the quarterfinals. The other three were not so lucky.
No. 26 Monday, the fourth Princeton athlete to earn an automatic bid to the tournament, faced Old Dominion’s No. 7 Larry Early in the first round. When they met on Nov. 4, Early had earned a 4–2 decision. The Tiger squad was convinced that Monday could overcome that two-point deficit.
But from the beginning of the faceoff, Early dominated. Though a scoreless first period gave Tiger fans some hope, Early ended the second up 6–0. He rode that momentum to the final second, stretching his lead to 10–0 and handing Princeton its first loss of the day.
Stefanik and Parker, both 31-seeds, faced their brackets’ second-ranked wrestlers. Hoping for an electrifying upset, Stefanik lost by fall instead. Parker finished his full three periods only to be defeated in an 11–2 major decision.
The day, however, was not over for those three wrestlers. They all had one more chance to extend their NCAA runs. A series of wins in the consolation bracket could fulfill their dreams of joining Saturday’s parade of All-Americans.
For Monday, that dream seemed a real possibility. Eight seconds into his match against Iowa State’s No. 23 Chase Straw, he scored a takedown. Monday finished the first period up 6–2, then stretched his lead to 8–4. It appeared he would give Princeton its first upset of the tournament.
But a scramble with 45 seconds left gave both wrestlers near-falls and reversals galore; suddenly, the score was tied at 12. The match extended to overtime. Neither wrestler could capitalize on a move. Then, with just seconds remaining in the first sudden-victory period, Straw earned an escape.
Monday’s first-year season, which saw him log 20 wins and earn a spot on the first team All-Ivy League, came to an end.
Stefanik and Parker, both of whom attended the tournament thanks to at-large bids, followed Monday in the consolation round. Neither of them could reverse the losing tide for Princeton; Stefanik fell 8–4 to Campbell’s No. 18 Andrew Morgan, Parker 14–2 to Wyoming’s No. 18 Tate Samuelson.
Princeton had lost half of its NCAA competitors in a matter of hours. Those three eliminated wrestlers, upon whom the team’s “incredible-ness” depended, had failed to make their crucial jump. And though Ayres hopes for a top-ten finish, the team ended the day sitting at 20th on the scoreboard.
Still, the day was historic.
Brucki, Kolodzik, and Glory will each have two chances Friday to attain All-American status. Kolodzik could be Princeton’s first wrestler to earn the honor thrice. Glory could be the program’s second-ever wrestler to do so. And any combination of those three athletes could be Princeton’s first simultaneous All-Americans since 1985.
In all, Ayres is not worried.
“We’ll get rolling,” he said. “Pat Glory will be Pat Glory. Brucki will get out of his head. Kolodzik will do more. And then these guys will be unstoppable.”