Very few people were surprised to see top seeds Kyle Dake of Cornell and Brandon Hatchett of Lehigh stand on top of the podium at 157 and 165 pounds at the 2012 EIWA Championships on Sunday afternoon.
The same could not be said in the 174-pound class. Brown’s Dave Foxen, who came into the weekend with a 13-12 record, earned the championship by a 3-2 margin with a takedown late in the third period against Navy’s Oscar Huntley. The senior, one of three native New Yorkers to capture titles, along with Dake and American’s Matt Mariacher, became the first unseeded grappler to take the conference crown since 1963.
“It was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders,” Foxen said. “It‘s hard to describe. I guess sometimes I still can’t believe it happened. It’s really cool. Winning EIWAs was a huge goal of mine since I got to college and there were many points during this year and my career I didn’t think it would ever happen.”
The Long Island product compiled a 138-21 record at Garden City High with a school record 90 pins, but never qualified for the New York State tournament after taking fourth, second and third at the Sectionals. In his final season, he finished on a heartbreaking note when he gave up a takedown with three seconds to go in the Section 8 semifinals to lose a match he had been winning.
“I had a very good high school career,” he said. “But in the end, it was unfulfilled. I wanted to win the Section and get to states. I think those shortcomings motivated me to work harder to have success at the next level.”
Foxen found out soon, as most freshmen do, that collegiate success is a completely different animal. He spent much of the campaign as a backup at 141 pounds.
“I was pretty much a boy wrestling a bunch of men at that time,” he said. “There’s definitely a steep learning curve to say the least. I took my share of beatings. The transition wasn’t easy, that’s for sure.”
He broke into the starting lineup as a sophomore and compiled a 10-17 record at 149 pounds for the Bears, including an 0-2 EIWA appearance.
“I spent a lot of time in the weight room and spent the whole summer at Brown, training as much as I could before my second year,” he said. “I definitely made overall improvements, but I wasn’t happy with my results at Easterns.”
To get to the next level, he felt that he needed time to focus on improving all aspects of his wrestling. Since Ivy League athletes cannot take official redshirt years, Foxen decided to withdraw from school and move to a place he could eat, drink and sleep the sport. What better place than Iowa?
“I didn’t have any prior connections there,” he said. “But they were the defending NCAA champions and I was looking for the best training environment possible. I was looking for the toughest guys who would push me everyday. It was a shot in the dark, but I got in touch with Terry Brands and trained with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club for a year.”
Foxen felt that the time spent in the Midwest was extremely worthwhile.
“It’s just a different type of place,” he said. “The intensity of that room was so high. There were so many high caliber wrestlers who were so accomplished. I had to change what I did just to survive. I got beat on day after day but I became much better on my feet and became much more physical. I got a lot of personal help from Terry Brands, Randy Lewis and other club members and coaches. It was a great experience.”
When he returned to Providence, he felt that he was a new and improved wrestler. He came into the campaign looking to win EIWAs and earn All-American honors at nationals in Philadelphia. However, he had trouble with weight, competing at 157 pounds, where the cut was too much. He felt he gained momentum when he bumped up to 165, but then sustained a severe ankle injury, which sidelined him for an extended time. When he returned toward the end of the season, he won just a single bout at EIWAs.
“After Iowa, I felt my level of wrestling had gone up substantially,” he said. “My goals were very high and I fell very short of those goals. It was disappointing that I didn’t accomplish anything I set out to do. I knew I had to make the most of my last year.”
As a senior, Foxen moved up to 174 pounds and got off to a slow start, beginning 3-7. However, things began to turn around after the Christmas break.
“One of my biggest problems has always been getting out on bottom,” he said. “In the first part of the year, I couldn’t get out to save my life. But the coaches worked with me every single day to tweak little things here and there. Some technical changes helped me turn things around. I also got more confident in my shots.”
Foxen pointed to a victory over Cornell’s Billy George in Ithaca as a big confidence builder going into the stretch run of the season. Still, he suffered a pair of tight conference losses just a few weeks prior to the EIWAs. On February 11, he lost to Lehigh’s Nathaniel Brown 3-1 in sudden victory and a week later, he dropped a 4-0 decision to Columbia’s Stephen West.
Fast forward to March 3 inside Jadwin Gym in Princeton. After defeating Stephen McPeek of Bucknell in the first round of EIWAs, Foxen faced third-seeded West for the second time in a month. This time, he came out on top, 5-2.
“When the brackets came out, Coach [John] Clark said that for an unseeded wrestler, I got the best draw I possibly could have,” Foxen said. “I relished the opportunity to avenge those losses [to West and Brown].”
In their previous meeting, Foxen recalled giving up an early takedown to West and being ridden out for the rest of the first period. He knew in the rematch, being effective off bottom was key.
“This time, at the beginning of the second period I got out in less than 10 seconds,” he said. “I also was able to get to my underhook much better. He won the handfighting the first time but I was able to get to much better positions this time around.”
Foxen next met another familiar challenge in number two seed Brown of the Mountain Hawks. Once again, he got revenge for an earlier setback, winning on a takedown in sudden victory to earn a spot in the finals.
“Against Brown, I just executed much better this time,” he said. “The match was almost the exact same match as the first time, but with a different outcome. Both matches were basically seven minutes of handfighting on feet with a few shots but no one close to scoring in regulation. The first time, he got me on the edge in overtime for a takedown. This time in overtime, I got an ankle pick to win.”
Besides putting him in the title match, the victory ensured an NCAA slot for Foxen, a dream he had been chasing.
“That was a really big win for me,” he said. “Making NCAAs had been a goal of mine for so long. When you’re in the semis, you don’t want to lose, especially when there are four qualifying spots. Because if you lose, you’re stuck in an all-or-nothing match. It was great to win that one and not have to worry about NCAAs. I just had to worry about getting ready for the finals.”
But the win meant more than a chance to participate in college wrestling’s biggest event in St. Louis next week. It demonstrated that Brown wrestling is still alive and kicking. After all, the Bears won four total matches as a team at last year’s EIWA tournament, finishing last. This year, the squad boasted four placers and two NCAA bids. (184 pound freshman Ophir Bernstein will join Foxen in Missouri).
That didn’t seem possible not too long ago. Foxen remembers being in line for weigh-ins at the University Nationals in Akron, Ohio with teammate Zach Kulczycki in April when they received a call that changed everything. Clark revealed the news that the recommendation had been made to eliminate the Bears program.
“All of a sudden, we didn’t have a team anymore,” he said. “Our hearts sunk. But Zach and I told each other to try to block it out and wrestle the tournament. We would come back to Brown afterwards and reconvene with everyone to figure out what to do next.”
Foxen was part of a collaborative effort among wrestlers, coaches, alumni and others to save the program. The group put on a pep rally on the main campus green along with the skiing and fencing teams. They scheduled a number of meetings with University President Ruth Simmons to talk about what the sport meant to them, the school and their families. They sat down with the Athletic Recommendation committee and were thrilled when Governor Lincoln Chafee appeared to support them.
“It was a team effort,” he said. “I was really proud that everyone came together and stepped up. When we got the news that we could continue this year, it was a huge relief. I was thrilled to get my senior year back, but at the same time, we’re not done, not by a longshot. The main goal is to preserve the program for many years to come. There’s still a big fight ahead but it was nice to win a small battle. I think we’re in a good spot, though. We have an alumni base that loves our team and will do everything they can to make sure we keep moving forward.”
The events of the past year made the title especially significant.
“It really means a lot after all our program went through,” he said. “I hope it paves the way for a lot more EIWA champions and national qualifiers here because we have a lot of young talent on the team. I hope it pushes and motivates my teammates to pursue those kinds of goals.”
Foxen isn’t done pursuing his own objectives yet.
“My goals haven’t changed despite where I’ve come from and what I’ve been through,” he said. “My goal has always been to make the podium. I definitely think I have the ability and so do my coaches. It’s about putting together enough matches in a row.”
For the second time this month, Dave Foxen will enter a tournament unseeded. He looks to put his stamp on NCAAs the same way he did at Easterns.