Head wrestling coach Chris Ayres has a vision.
It’s a vision of the recently winless Princeton wrestling team pulling off the greatest turnaround college athletics has ever seen. It’s a vision of Princeton wrestling as a top-fifteen team, a top-ten team, a top-five team. It’s a vision of Princeton wrestling claiming its first national champion since 1951; a vision of Princeton wrestling hoisting a team trophy at this year’s NCAA tournament.
It’s a vision on which Ayres has sold his colleagues, his wrestlers, his fans, a vision that’s spawned infinitely quotable, infinitely tweetable slogans: ‘Get In,’ ‘Burn the Ships,’ ‘Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere.’
From 2006 to 2017, that vision chugged slowly towards fruition. Last season, it picked up speed.
Ayres said his team could upset No. 8 Lehigh. It did (and then it did again). Ayres said his team would earn a national ranking. It did. Ayres said his team would leave the Ken Kraft Midlands Invitational with its first-ever champion. It did. Ayres said his team could produce three All-Americans and could record a top-fifteen national finish. It did.
Ayres has gotten used to triumphant press conferences. He has gotten used to watching his vision become reality.
So this was new: Ayres sitting in Jadwin Gymnasium’s Caldwell Lounge, shaking his head at the reporters in front of him, his vision fallen flat.
“I don’t know if I’m out of my mind,” he said. “Maybe some people think I am. But I believe in these guys. That’s why we do a trip like this weekend. We’re not here to lose.”
On Friday, No. 12 wrestling had traveled to Stillwater, Oklahoma to face No. 9 Oklahoma State; the Tigers had returned Sunday for a Jadwin faceoff against the No. 1 University of Iowa. They’d started the weekend with a 15–18 loss and ended it with 9–30 defeat.
“Yeah,” said Ayres. “Tough weekend.”
It had started out on a hopeful note: 174-pound senior Kevin Parker, 184-pound sophomore Travis Stefanik, 157-pound sophomore Quincy Monday, and No. 2 197-pound junior Patrick Brucki all earned decisions over their Oklahoman opponents.
No. 4 125-pound sophomore Patrick Glory got Tiger hearts racing with a 9–4 upset of no. 3 Nick Piccininni. At last year’s NCAA tournament, Piccininni had knocked Glory out of the semifinals and into the consolation bracket with a 9–5 defeat; here was Glory’s sweet redemption, with an extra point to boot.
But losses at heavyweight, 133, 141, and 149, and a medical forfeit in the 165-pound match pushed the Cowboys to their 18–15 victory. Back flew the Tigers, to their home turf and their Sunday match.
A point of clarification here: Iowa wrestling is very, very good.
The Hawkeyes have earned eight NCAA Championships, 14 Big Eight Conference Championships, three Big Ten Conference Championships. They’ve produced 66 individual national champions to Princeton’s one. All ten of their starters are ranked top-ten nationally. Seven of those ten starters are ranked in the top-three. Last year, the Tigers suffered a 10–31 defeat at the Hawkeyes’ hands.
But Chris Ayres has a vision. And this year, he thought his team could win.
The Tigers got good news straight off the bat: instead of wrestling their top-ranked starter Spencer Lee to face No. 4 Glory, Iowa would send Anthony Cashman, an unranked redshirt freshman seeking to be more than just Lee’s backup. Glory made quick work of him, earning a 9–4 decision to put three points on the board for Princeton.
Next up at 133 was unranked freshman Sean Pierson facing Iowa’s No. 1 Austin DeSanto. DeSanto logged takedown after takedown after takedown. The match ended with a 25–10 Iowa technical fall. At 141, Iowa’s No. 9 Max Murin claimed an 11–2 major decision over unranked sophomore Marshall Keller.
No. 14 senior captain Mike D’Angelo faced No. 3 Pat Lugo at 149. The first, scrambling period ended scoreless. A second-period Lugo escape put him up a point; D’Angelo matched him at the beginning of the third. The clock wound down.
Overtime began and ended without a tiebreaker. Double overtime kicked in. With 23 seconds left in its first period, D’Angelo somersaulted his way to an escape. He was up 2–1; all he had to do was hold off his opponent. He couldn’t. With nine seconds to go, Lugo scored a takedown. The match ended 3–2; Iowa led 12–3.
No. 9 Monday faced Iowa’s no. 4 Kaleb Young at 157 pounds. Monday set the pace with an early lunge and an early takedown. Young logged an immediate escape, then another one, to close the second period 2–2. With just over a minute and a half left in the contest, Monday exploded from Young’s control to tally an escape-point. Young couldn’t mobilize for a response.
Monday had pulled off a five-place upset and his second ranked victory of the season. Ordering the crowd of 2,284 to get on its feet, he flexed, pounded his chest, and ran off the mat.
Ayres greeted him with this: “You could’ve scored more.”
Monday’s not too worried. “It felt good to feel like I’m finally achieving what I know I’m capable of,” he said.
And come the post-match press conference, Ayres had gentler words for him: “It’s domination after this. There’s no reason Quincy Monday can’t be an national champion this year.”
Iowa’s second-ranked Alex Marinelli pinned junior Conor Melbourne at 165; Iowa’s third-ranked Michael Kemerer crushed Parker 19–4 at 174.
But the tide turned at 184-pounds, when unranked Stefanik walked onto the mat. Facing No. 10 Nelson Brands, he started the match with a quick takedown and didn’t look back. Stefanik was up 6–4 by the third period, and Pat Glory couldn’t contain himself.
“He’s breaking!” He screamed from the sidelines. “Travis! He’s breaking!”
He spoke too soon. With 29 seconds left in the match, Brands tied it up. Stefanik didn’t sweat it. An escape with seven seconds to go secured a 7–6 victory and another major upset for the Tigers.
That was the last of Princeton’s good news. Junior captain and second-ranked superstar Patrick Brucki couldn’t fend off the formidable No. 3 Jacob Warner. A literal last-second takedown handed Brucki his first loss of the season, 4–3.
“I’m not making excuses,” said Ayres. “He should have won the match, but I’m not upset with his effort.”
“That kid [Warner] could have got hit for stalling. I mean, let’s be honest. We took how many shots — eight, nine shots? Let’s be honest. Because he’s in a black singlet, he doesn’t get hit for stalling? That’s a fact. That’s what happened.”
An expected heavyweight defeat propelled the Hawkeyes to a 30–9 victory. The Tigers had won just three matches, the same number as last year; they’d lost by 21 points for the second year in a row.
Sometimes visions are just visions. Sometimes dreams fall flat. On chugs Ayres.
“Our goal with this group is to be top four. We want a trophy this year. I think there’s no reason we can’t do that with the guys we have right now.”