The 2012 EIWA team race came down to the very last match Saturday afternoon at Jadwin Gym in Princeton, New Jersey.
Cornell came into the heavyweight bout with 151.5 points, Lehigh with 149. As Ryan Flores of American and Zach Rey of Lehigh took the mat, there was nothing further the Big Red could do but sit and watch. Or, in head coach Rob Koll’s case, not watch.
“I left the gym, I couldn’t be there,” Koll said. “I listened to the crowd. I knew a lot of cheering meant trouble and since I didn’t hear much noise, I knew we had a chance. You could say I’m a fan of Ryan Flores.”
Flores defeated Rey in last year’s 285-pound EIWA title match and did it again, earning a 3-1 decision on a takedown in sudden victory. That result sealed the EIWA crown for the Big Red for the sixth consecutive time.
“It’s so hard when you don’t have a guy out there and your team’s outcome is being determined,” added Cornell assistant coach Damion Hahn. “I have to say thank you to Flores. He’s my favorite wrestler on another team right now. He helped Cornell make history today with our sixth in a row.”
The Big Red came into the final session with a lead of 2.5 points over the Mountain Hawks after an eventful morning.
Frank Perrelli helped to extend that lead with a 7-4 win in the 125 pound championship bout over Princeton’s Garrett Frey. The senior was on the offensive all weekend as he notched two technical falls and a major on his way to his second consecutive EIWA title.
“Frank went after guys the whole tournament,” Hahn said. “He’s at his best when he’s attacking and he’s in such good shape that we keep telling him to keep shooting. He will have a lot of success at NCAAs, especially if he keeps that up.”
The Big Red had the chance to increase the margin at 141 pounds when Mike Nevinger took on Matt Mariacher. But the defending conference champion from American dominated in neutral, earning three takedowns in a 6-4 triumph.
“The finals match wasn’t indicative of what Mike can do,” Koll said. “He was out of his stance way too many times. But he had a huge win in the semis [over Lehigh’s Stephen Dutton]. I can’t say enough about how excited I am about his improvement.”
“Nevinger is the epitome of what you want in a college wrestler. He’s tough and a workhorse,” Hahn added. “We expect him on the podium and I know he expects that of himself. It might be forgotten at this point but his win in the semis was huge, it really propelled us towards the title.”
At 149 pounds, Lehigh had an opportunity to narrow the gap with surprise finalist Shane Welsh. The junior had been in and out of the lineup for the Mountain Hawks, but upset Chris Villalonga in overtime in the quarters and received a medical forfeit in the semis from Corey Jantzen to make the title bout. He took full advantage, soundly defeating American’s Kevin Tao 4-0.
It was Cornell’s turn to respond and two-time national champion Kyle Dake did just that. He used a takedown at the end of the second period and an escape in the third to score a 3-0 win over Harvard’s Walter Peppelman.
“When Kyle goes out there, I just sit back and just watch,” Hahn said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll win. I don’t get nervous at all. He’s a pleasure to watch. It doesn’t matter if the guy has Kyle in the air, on his back, whatever. He’ll wrestle the position and come out on top. He’s a winner, plain and simple.”
Then it was Lehigh’s turn again. Brandon Hatchett missed nearly two months of action with an injury but lived up to his number one seed at 165 pounds by topping last season’s EIWA victor Scott Winston of Rutgers in sudden victory.
The only head to head meeting between the top two teams was next with Robert Hamlin of Lehigh taking on Steve Bosak of Cornell at 184 pounds. Hamlin had beaten Bosak three out of the four times they wrestled, with every match going down to the wire. This time, it was no different.
In a 1-1 bout late in the third, Bosak took a shot that Hamlin countered for a takedown of his own. With just seconds left, Bosak came close to the winning points, but ran out of time in a 3-2 decision. The team from Bethlehem jumped out to a 149-147.5 advantage.
“We came in with a little bit of a different strategy than the dual meet,” Hahn said of Bosak’s 2-1 win over Hamlin on January 8. “Steve was a little frustrated that he wasn’t offensive enough in that match. But that late in the match, he didn’t need to force the action. He went after it and got scored on. He’ll probably get another chance at him in a few weeks.”
Now in second place, Cornell needed a win from 197-pound senior Cam Simaz. He faced a very familiar foe, Micah Burak of Penn, whom he had defeated eight times during his career coming into the bout.
This match yielded the same results as Simaz picked up a 9-4 win en route to his fourth EIWA title and Most Outstanding Wrestler honors. He also received the John Fletcher Trophy as the wrestler who scored the most points for his team at EIWAs during his career.
“Truthfully, we were hoping for some bonus points,” Hahn said of his 197 pounder, who had won 23 of his 25 matches by bonus heading into the finals. “He had an opportunity in the second period when he put Burak on his back and I thought he was about to pin him. But Burak wrestled a very strategic match and kept things somewhat close. I believe Cam is the most dominant wrestler in college this year and it showed again this weekend.”
After that bout, the score read Cornell 151.5 and Lehigh 149 and after Flores got his hand raised, that score became final.
Several other wrestlers played important roles in bringing the conference trophy back to Ithaca.
Chris Villalonga bounced back to take third at 149, avenging a dual meet loss to Columbia’s Steve Santos along the way. Marshall Peppelman earned fourth at 165, winning in dramatic fashion against last season’s EIWA runner up Eren Civan late on Saturday to stay alive for an NCAA qualifying slot. Nick Arujau overcame a difficult 3-2 loss to top seeded Steven Keith in his first match on Sunday to take fifth at 133. All three punched their tickets to NCAAs in St. Louis with their performances.
“We put a lot on our young guys this year and this weekend, they wrestled well,” Hahn said. “Jeremy [Spates] puts together highlight-lowlight videos for the guys and when Marshall saw his, he was shocked with how he handled some situations in matches this year. I think he came in with a different perspective and he showed progress. He has phenomenal talent and will continue to put it all together.”
“Villalonga looked really good and Arujau performed,” Hahn added. “Arujau had two losses to tough guys he could have beaten. He was right there and he knows it. He just needs to take that next step.”
Heavyweight Maciej Jochym has taken many steps forward during the course of the season. He picked up some key team points with two pins and his fifth place showing. He handed eventual third place finisher Kevin Lester of Columbia his only loss of the weekend and will wait to see if he receives a wildcard for nationals.
Despite the excitement in the finals, the drama most people were talking about took place in the morning at 174 pounds in the bout between Cornell’s Billy George and Lehigh’s Nathaniel Brown. The stakes were high, with a relatively close team competition and an NCAA berth for the winner. George grew increasingly frustrated in the third period of a close loss. After the clock ran out, he struck Brown with his knee, knocking the Mountain Hawk wrestler to the ground, where he stayed for several minutes. George was disqualified and the points he had earned were subtracted from Cornell’s team score. In addition, the bout was ruled a disqualification rather than a decision, adding extra points to Lehigh’s total.
“Obviously, Billy got caught up and let his emotions get the best of him,” Hahn said. “He was frustrated and he lost control. How he handled things was completely unacceptable and we will sit down and evaluate it and what the consequences will be. It’s a shame. He’s a great kid from a great family. But he let his emotions take control. We hope Brown is okay.”
The Lehigh freshman did not wrestle his match for third place and further information on his status was not available after the tournament.
It was a low point in a day that should have been a celebration of an achievement not seen in the modern era. No team had captured six in a row since prior to World War II.
“Rob [Koll] brushes it off like it’s no big deal, but it’s an amazing accomplishment,” Hahn said. “He deserves to be honored. What he has done in his time at Cornell is spectacular. We keep saying that the best is yet to come and I believe it. We’ve been close to our goal of winning NCAAs and it will happen. That’s what we’re ultimately shooting for.”
Hahn acknowledges that Cornell is not frequently mentioned among the contenders for this year’s NCAA crown, but with three returning All-Americans in the title hunt (Dake, Bosak and Simaz) and eight automatic qualifiers, Hahn thinks the team will make its presence felt in St. Louis.
“Our confidence is high going into the nationals,” he said. “We’re an underdog but we’re ready to perform. We can’t wait.”