Last February, before Princeton wrestling’s 2019 faceoff against Rutgers University, head coach Chris Ayres made a bold claim: the Scarlet Knights’ no. 2 ranked 149-pounder, Anthony Ashnault, would not score a single point against the Tigers’ no. 1 ranked, then-junior Matthew Kolodzik.
Kolodzik’s 10–2 blowout loss paved the way for his four-spot slide down the rankings, for Ashnault’s March national title, for widespread, wrestling-world ridicule of Ayres. And Kolodzik’s fall proved the deciding factor in Princeton’s 19–18 loss to its in-state rival, extending Rutgers’ series win streak to 23 years.
Princeton took on Rutgers once again last Sunday in Jadwin Gymnasium. Like last year, both teams boasted earlier-season victories over Lehigh and Rider Universities; the meet’s winner would claim both the B1G-Ivy trophy and the title of New Jersey champion. Like last year, both squads walked away from the day with five wins under their belts. Like last year, just one match separated the winner from the loser. And like last year, it all came down to Kolodzik.
Say what you will about Princeton wrestling. This, no one can dispute: it’s a team gifted with an enviable narrative arc.
To Kolo — a senior now, and ranked fourth — his electric, first-period pin of Rutgers’ Gerard Angelo was “fun,“ “exciting,“ and “nice.” To Ayres? It was “redemption.”
Either way, it led the no. 14 Tigers to an 18–15 victory over the no. 20 Scarlet Knights. Princeton’s last win over Rutgers came in 1990; its last Rutgers-Lehigh sweep was during the 1982–83 season. Ayres’ team has hit a dizzying number of milestones in the past three weeks alone: its first Ivy League title since 1986, its first triumph over Cornell since 1986, its first EIWA sweep in decades. Has the thrill gotten old for him?
No. 3 sophomore Patrick Glory started the action off with a 10–5 decision over Rutgers’ 20th-ranked Nicolas Aguilar. He didn’t know it yet, but was starting a trend; save Kolodzik’s pin, every bout in the dual would end with a regular decision.
Unranked first-year Sean Pierson represented the Orange and Black at 133 pounds, taking on Rutgers’ formidable no. 10 Sammy Alvarez. For the first four minutes of competition, Alvarez drove the action. But with 0:56 left in the second period, Pierson logged an escape. And 52 seconds later, he turned a turn-attempt by Alvarez into a takedown of his opponent, clawing his way to just a 4–3 deficit at the start of the third. Two hard-earned points in the final period gave him a 5–4 advantage as the clock wound down; Princeton’s bench got to its feet. But an Alvarez takedown with 1:06 on the clock crushed their dreams of an upset.
In one of the meet’s few unranked matchups, sophomore Marshall Keller dropped a 5–2 bout to Rutgers’ Zach Firestone at 141. The Scarlet Knights led 6–3. Onto the mat strolled Kolodzik.
Victory took him all of one minute, nine seconds. He slammed his way to an early takedown, muscled it into a pin. Then up he sprung, to flex and scream and clap and point one finger, victorious, at Ayres.
“Winning,“ said Kolodzik, “is the most fun part of this sport. If we’re going to put ourselves through this, why not celebrate at the end?”
His pin jump-started a three-bout win streak. No. 4 sophomore Quincy Monday picked up an 8–5 victory at 157. No. 23 sophomore Grant Cuomo held off Rutgers’ feisty Brett Donner for an 8–7 win at 165. First-year Nate Dugan broke ranks with a 6–1 loss at 174. Team score, Princeton: 15. Team score, Rutgers: 9.
Up next was no. 25 184-pound sophomore Travis Stefanik. Hero of last month’s Cornell victory, he hadn’t lost (or won by anything less than a major decision) since that meet. None of his recent victories, though, had come against ranked opponents — and he was to face Rutgers’ no. 13 Billy Janzer.
A slow-moving first period ended 2–1 for Stefanik. Janzer’s second-period escape tied it up 2–2. A Princeton escape edged the score to 3–2. The clock wound down in the third, and it seemed that Stefanik’s advantage would stand. It was enough for a victory.
But it wasn’t enough, apparently, for him. With less than a second to go, Stefanik put Janzer on his back — for two points, a takedown, and a resounding roar from the home crowd.
“I live for the big moments,” he said. “I like that. It gives me a little extra edge.”
He jogged off the mat, to his teammates; Glory placed an imaginary crown on his head.
The Tigers led 18–6. Victory for the Scarlet Knights seemed improbable, but take it from Stefanik:
“Anything can happen in a wrestling match.”
Junior captain no. 3 Pat Brucki’s match against no. 19 Jordan Pagano at 197 seemed a dead lock for Brucki, whom Ayres calls “the backbone of this program.” But just seconds in, he fell — clutching his knee, spouting expletives — to the ground. He chose to keep wrestling (“Jesus,“ said one spectator, “is that kid tough) and spent the next seven minutes maneuvering, essentially, on one leg. He fell to Pagano but limited the underdog to a 10–9 victory.
Princeton: 18. Rutgers: 9. Bouts left: heavyweight.
First-year Aiden Conner had one job: don’t lose by fall. He didn’t. Rutgers’ Matthew Correnti bested him 6–3, but it didn’t matter. A win was a win; a win was history.
“This is a special team,” said Ayres. “I’m really proud of these guys. These guys have been through a lot. They’re tough. They’re just tough kids.”
They’ll get a two-week break from toughness before heading to Lehigh, for this year’s EIWA Championships. For three consecutive years, the Tigers have finished third behind Cornell and Lehigh, respectively. Princeton’s squad boasts wins over both of those teams this season. Ayres, ever cautious, ever concise:
“We’re in a nice spot.”