Sitting in his Jadwin Gym office almost precisely a year ago, head wrestling coach Chris Ayres explained his team’s depth problem.
“We have three phenomenal wrestlers,” he said. “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.”
Those three wrestlers were the then-first-year, 125-pound Patrick Glory, the then-sophomore, 197-pound Patrick Brucki, and the then-junior, 149-pound Matthew Kolodzik. The only Princeton wrestlers to make it past the NCAA Tournament’s first day of competition, they finished their seasons fifth, fourth, and fifth in the country, respectively. The face of Princeton wrestling, they earned scores of University firsts, appeared on posters and calendars and banners in formidable v-formation.
And Ayres — if not Glory, Brucki, and Kolodzik themselves — spent nine months hoping that the chasm between the team’s top three athletes and its next 26 would narrow.
It’s a new season for the Tigers. Some things have changed. No. 3 Glory is a sophomore; no. 3 Brucki is a junior; Kolodzik is on a year off. Last year’s 174-pound starter, Travis Stefanik, and its 184-pound starter, Kevin Parker, have traded weight classes. Senior captain no. 14 Mike D’Angelo is back from a year off and doing his best to fill a Kolodzik-sized hole at 149. Ayres has a few more wins under his belt; his team sits a few spots higher in the national rankings.
Heading into a new decade, no. 12 Princeton wrestling didn’t pump the brakes. In the past three weeks, Tiger wrestling earned NCAA Team of the Week honors for routing no. 25 Rider University 25–9 and placed fifth, the highest of any Ivy League Program, at the grueling 35-team Ken Kraft Midlands Championship.
That meet and those matches have underscored the team’s aggressive, offensive, electric style of wrestling — the team’s passion, its verve, its ability to put on a show.
That meet and those matches have underscored something else as well. Princeton wrestling is still a team fronted by three superstars, if different ones.
At Midlands — where last year Brucki and Kolodzik became Princeton’s first- and second-ever champions — Glory, Brucki, and 157-pound sophomore Quincy Monday were the only three Tigers to earn podium spots. Glory became the University’s third-ever champion. Brucki and Monday both placed third.
Glory says he’s happy. He says he’s lucky; he says he knows this is a luxury. He also says he wishes it might have been harder. Only two wrestlers — Iowa’s Spencer Lee and the University of Virginia’s Jack Mueller — sit above him in the national rankings. Both of them dropped out of Midlands competition before he could face them.
“I 100 percent wish I’d been able to face those guys,” he said. “Being a champion feels great, obviously, but I want to get my hands on the guys I’ll be facing in the postseason.”
Against Rider, no. 7 Monday did what he normally does: electrified the stands with a 13–7 upset, this time of Rider’s no. 6 Jesse Dellavecchia. But he fell in Midlands’ round of 16 to Army’s Markus Hartman in the round of 16. To earn a podium position, he’d have to win a daunting six straight matches. He did.
From Ayres: “If Quincy wrestles at NCAAs like he wrestled in the wrestle-backs, he can be a national champion.”
As for Brucki, who did two spots worse than he did last year but avenged an earlier-season defeat with a 10–5 victory over Iowa’s no. 2 Jacob Warner:
“He’s a little tight out there,“ said Ayres, “but he beat Jacob Warner about as bad as you can beat Jacob Warner. If he can just be himself and wrestle to his ability, he should be the national champion.”
Three superstars, then a chasm.
Princeton’s next-highest-placing wrestler — and the only other one to make it to the second day of competition — was 174-pound Nate Dugan. This was just his second taste of collegiate competition; his first was a single, losing match at the Nov. 3 Princeton Open.
Stefanik, now a junior and weighing in at 184 pounds, had seemed well on his way to making Ayres’s jump just a month ago during Princeton’s grueling Oklahoma State-University of Iowa series. The formerly unranked Stefanik clawed his way to a no. 18 national ranking with back-to-back victories against Oklahoma’s Anthony Montalvo and Iowa’s no. 10 Nelson Brands.
“The consistency with Travis,” said Ayres after that match, “is getting there.”
Then, suddenly, it wasn’t. Facing Rider’s unranked George Walton, Stefanik faltered. Walton pinned him to strip him of his national ranking and put Rider’s first six points on the scoreboard. Seeded sixth at Midlands ten days later, Stefanik fell 5–3 to Iowa’s Abe Assad in the round of 16. He won his first consolation match, then dropped the second one 6–4.
“He sort of bailed,” Ayres said. “He didn’t wrestle well. He was just missing something. We’ve talked to him a lot; it’s about pushing the right buttons as a coach. We’ve hit the right buttons with other guys, and we’re just trying to figure out Travis. It’s tough. I think Travis is trying to figure out Travis.”
The three weeks brought with them a slew of other disappointments: captain D’Angelo’s Midlands first-round loss by fall, and junior captain Ty Agaisse’s 3–2 heartbreak loss against Rider.
But there were bright spots, too. Against Rider, first-year heavyweight Aiden Conner recorded his first victory of the season; 174-pound Parker pulled off a 9–8 victory; 165-pound sophomore Grant Cuomo and 141-pound sophomore Marshall Keller piled on bonus points to Princeton’s score.
Ten weeks and as many matches remain before the Minneapolis, Minnesota NCAA Tournament. Princeton wrestling has time — and its work cut out for it.
“Marshall, Parker, Stefanik,” said Ayres. “We need a breakthrough.”
Its wrestlers will have the opportunity to pull one off this weekend, when the team travels to North Carolina for a daunting series against no. 17 University North Carolina and no. 6 North Carolina State.
“Those teams are tough,” Ayres said. “It’ll be close. There’s a lot of nervousness as a coach.”
“Oh yeah,” Glory said. “This is gonna be fun.”