Princeton wrestling spent last year urging its fans and its doubters to #GetIn: to buy into its program, to hop on board before it became hopping on the bandwagon.
The Tigers pulled off what head coach Christopher Ayres called “the greatest turnaround college athletics has ever seen.” They closed out their season with a 15th-place national finish. They left the NCAA tournament with a program-high two semifinalists and three All-Americans. Patrick Glory ’22 became Princeton’s highest-placing first-year. Patrick Brucki ’21 became the University’s first athlete to claim the trifecta of All-American, Midlands champion, and Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) champion. Matthew Kolodzik ’21 became its first three-time All-American.
Now No. 11 Princeton wrestling is back, and the Tigers aren’t satisfied. Getting in isn’t enough. They’re ready to “Burn the Ships.”
“You can’t just be a blip on the screen,” Ayres said. “We want — we need — to keep this growth and this success going.”
Over the next three months, wrestling will do its best to reassert its national dominance. It will do that in part through a grueling schedule of dual-meets. In a three-week span, the Tigers will face No. 7 Lehigh University, No. 7 Oklahoma State University, No. 2 Iowa University, and No. 20 Rider University.
“Contrary to popular belief,” Ayres said, “I do not hate my team. It wasn’t my ideal situation, but I’m going to spin it into something positive: This will prepare them for NCAAs and for tough situations.”
One of the more dramatic of those meets will likely be this Saturday’s faceoff against Lehigh, Ayres’ alma mater. Last year, then-unranked Princeton sent shockwaves through the wrestling community with a 21–19 victory over no. 8 Lehigh. It was the Tigers’ first victory over the Mountain Hawks since 1968, and Ayres called it “the biggest win in program history.”
Take it from Ayres: “Lehigh will be out for blood. It’ll be tough, but that’s the way we like it.”
Wrestling’s roster has seen one significant change from last season. Kolodzik, one of last year’s All-Americans and a figurehead for the Tigers, is taking a year away from his studies at the University to focus exclusively on training.
No one’s panicking.
In Kolodzik’s absence, two Tigers have stepped up, fresh off years-off of their own: junior 133-pound captain Ty Agaisse and senior 149-pound captain Mike D’Angelo. The team’s third, returning captain is junior 197-pound Brucki, whom Ayres called “the best leader I’ve ever seen.”
D’Angelo currently enjoys a No. 12 national ranking; Brucki is second in the country. Two other Tigers join them in the national rankings: No. 5 125-pounder Glory and No. 9 157-pounder Quincy Monday.
Other returning NCAA qualifiers include sophomore Travis Stefanik and junior Kevin Parker, who have spent the beginning of this season battling it out for the 184-pound roster spot.
In short: roster depth, which proved a hurdle for the Tigers last year, seems substantially less of an issue for the team this season.
And even some of Princeton’s non-starters have spent the past weeks racking up national accolades. With this week came serendipitous news: three of Princeton’s wrestlers had earned accolades from the prestigious Barstool Sports 2019-2020 All-Ear Team.
Freshman Sean Pierson and junior Dale Tiongson earned honorable mentions; sophomore Forest Belli was named to the illustrious All-Name team.
“I’m extremely proud,“ said Belli. “I feel like I’ve been working my whole life for this.”
“Sometimes I wonder what all my hard work and sacrifice is for,“ said Tiongson. “Then moments like these make it all worthwhile.”
But when it comes to the next three months, Princeton’s wrestlers won't rest on their laurels. No matter his rank or the size of his trophy shelf, every wrestler is battling at once for a starting spot and a goal bigger than himself. The Tigers have duals to win, rankings to climb, a long-deferred Ivy League title and National Championship to earn.
They have ships to burn.
“We’re all in,” Ayres said. “We put everything in. We succeed or fail, but there’s no exit plan. Burn the ships.”