Head wrestling coach Chris Ayres leaned against a basement wall in the Pittsburgh PPG Paints Arena. He ran a hand through his close-cropped hair. For a second, he seemed on the verge of tears.
“I’ve gone through hell to get to this moment,” he said. “I’m getting chills. I mean, this is surreal. This is a dream come true. This is — I think — the greatest turnaround college athletics has ever seen.”
Citing budget cuts and gender inequity, the Athletic Department eliminated its wrestling program in 1993. Thanks to the concerted efforts of alumni and then-Director of Athletics Gary Walter, the program made a resurgence in 1997, but did not receive full University funding until 2004.
In 2006, Ayres made his coaching debut at the University.
For his first seasons, “we had nothing,” he said. “They’d taken our room away and given it to the football team. We had to roll out mats in Dillon Gym when we wanted to practice.” Princeton wrestling trailed Ivy League and National rankings.
Ayres got to work.
Thirteen years later, at the Pittsburgh NCAA Championships last weekend, his slog paid off.
For only the third time in school history, Princeton pulled off a top-15 finish. It left the tournament with a program-high two semifinalists and three All-Americans. (The previous record, of two All-Americans, dates from 1985.)
Patrick Glory became Princeton’s highest-placing first year. Sophomore captain Patrick Brucki became the University’s first athlete to claim the trifecta of All-American, Midlands champion, and EIWA champion. Junior captain Matthew Kolodzik became its first three-time All-American.
The first of the competition’s three days had seen six disappointing losses and six dramatic victories.
In opening bouts against top-eight seeds, first-year Travis Stefanik, first-year Quincy Monday, and junior Kevin Parker all suffered defeats. That trio lost as well in tough consolation matches; their seasons ended with the round.
Seventh-ranked Glory, fourth-ranked Brucki, and fifth-ranked Kolodzik all bested their first two opponents to move onto the next morning’s quarterfinals.
Ayres approached the championship’s second day with confidence.
“Pat Glory will be Pat Glory,” he said. Brucki will get out of his head. Kolodzik will do more. And then these guys will be unstoppable.”
He was very nearly right.
Glory fell 9—5 in his quarterfinal match against Oklahoma State’s No. 2 Nicholas Piccininni. That bumped him down to the consolation bracket, where he faced Old Dominion’s No. 12 Michael McGee. Glory breezed past him 7—1 to secure his status as an All-American.
Glory wrestled his third match of the day against Michigan State’s No. 9 RayVon Foley. In the first period alone, he racked up a 10–0 lead and 2:35 of riding time. The third frame saw some sloppiness from Glory — “stop it now!” yelled assistant coach Joe Dubuque from the corner — but he still managed to finish the eight minutes with a 13—5 major decision.
Glory was guaranteed a top-six place, the best ever finish for a Princeton first-year.
Kolodzik pulled off a 5–3 upset of Missouri’s No. 4 Brock Mauller to advance to the semifinals. There, he squared up with Rutgers’ No. 1 Anthony Ashnault, whom he had met earlier this season in Piscataway.
In response to Ayres’ claim that Ashnault could not score a point on his wrestler, the Scarlet Knight had bested Kolodzik 10—2 and held up a defiant ten fingers to Princeton’s bench. That defeat had jumpstarted Kolodzik’s slide down the rankings. Here was his opportunity for redemption.
“I’m ready to go and prove that things have changed,” he said before the match.
He lost 2—0. Down the drain went Kolodzik’s dreams of an NCAA title, of a dramatic upset. He had made history as Princeton’s first three-time All-American. But like Glory, he fell into the consolation bracket.
197-pound Brucki met with a similar fate. In the morning, he posted a 4—3 decision against California Polytechnic’s No. 21 Thomas Lane to join Kolodzik in the semifinals.
There, he faced a formidable opponent: Penn State’s two-time national champion and three-time national finalist, No. 1 Bo Nickal.
Despite Nickal’s reputation — “he’s one of the greatest wrestlers this sport has seen,“ said Ayres — Princeton’s coaches were certain Brucki could pull off the upset.
But Brucki, who has won by fall five times this season and beaten his opponents by a stunning average of 8.4 points, was pinned just four minutes and 41 seconds into the match.
By the end of the Friday evening session, three athletes’ quests for titles had come to an end. But they refused to let that color their attitudes or their performances. They still had a full day of wrestling ahead of them, a full day to secure their ultimate dream of a top-ten finish.
Facing Northwestern’s No. 1 Sebastian Rivera in the Saturday consolation semifinals, Glory kicked off the Tigers’ final day of competition.
He led 9—7 entering the third period. But a wild scramble with just seconds remaining led to back points on back points for Rivera; the bout ended in a 14—9 loss for Princeton.
He then re-faced Piccininni to battle for fifth. It seemed Glory, who led 4—2 at the end of the second frame, would avenge his earlier loss. But he opted to start the third period down, and quickly saw the error of his ways. Piccininni turned and pinned him.
Glory’s first collegiate season was over. He had racked up 30 wins and an EIWA Championship.
“I’m not worried about him,” said Ayres. “I love that kid. His problem is never that he didn’t try hard enough, that he wasn’t aggressive enough, that he didn’t bring the right mindset. Sometimes, he just gets beat. Pat Glory has an incredible future ahead of him.”
Glory proved less chipper.
Being Princeton’s most-decorated freshman wrestler “is a good feeling,” he said. “But there’s a little bit of a sting in the bottom of my stomach. I wanted to do the best as I could. I know I could have done better.”
Next up on the mat was Kolodzik. He took on Duke’s No. 3 Mitch Finesilver in the battle for third place. An escape and over a minute of riding-time gave Finesilver a 2—0 victory.
Kolodzik came back from the defeat swinging. Facing Mauller for the second time that weekend, Kolodzik bested him 10—6, his largest margin of the competition.
So outspoken in the beginning of the season about his future as a national champion, Kolodzik — who finished seventh his first year and third his sophomore year — had earned fifth place. To him, the next step is logical.
“I’ve got one odd number left to collect,” he said. “I just need to fuel up and win this senior year.”
Brucki closed Princeton’s weekend in Pittsburgh. The only Tiger wrestler to pull off a win in consolation semifinals, he trounced Fresno State’s No. 16 Josh Hokit 8—3.
In the next round, Brucki faced Oklahoma State’s Preston Weigel. An early scramble led to a takedown of Brucki and a series of swipes for Weigel, who entered the second up 6—0.
That margin seemed to break Brucki’s spirit. Weigel accumulated a full period of riding time; Princeton’s wrestler just couldn’t come back. The match ended in a 7—1 decision for Oklahoma State. Brucki placed fourth.
“It’s been a tough day,” he said simply.
Individual disappointments aside, Princeton’s wrestlers recognized just how monumental their weekend had been.
“I can’t even put this into words,” said Kolodzik. “I can’t even imagine how much the coaches are feeling right now.”
Ayres answered that question for him.
“Listen,” he said, leaning against that basement wall. “Fourth, fifth, and sixth place? A top-fifteen finish? Three All-Americans? I’m so excited. You have no idea. You have no idea what we’ve done to get here.”
Over the course of Saturday afternoon, Ayres’ disbelief gave way to pure pride. Hours after his sentimental post-tournament interview, he delivered a rousing speech at a banquet for the Friends of Princeton Wrestling.
“Are there any guys here from the class of 1978?” he asked. That year was Princeton’s last banner season. A few men in the room raised their hands.
Ayres paused, laughed, leaned into the microphone.
“We finally beat you.”