Northeast Duals Recap: From Cornell Victories to Standout Performances to Celebrating Jeff Blatnick


By Matt Diano

On an afternoon that marked the 10th anniversary of its creation, the 2012 edition of the Journeymen/ASICS Northeast Duals did not fail to live up to the purposes of its origin. Seeking to establish an event which would both capture the ambiance and intensity of the classic Iowa/Oklahoma State showdowns (which he had been exposed to while watching his brother, Pat, compete for John Smith’s Cowboys) as well as promote the world’s oldest and greatest sport to the upstate community, Frank Popolizio has seen his brainchild grow from being hosted in the Niskayuna High School gymnasium to being considered one of, if not the, preeminent early season clash of the titans.

While still relatively young in age, the NE Duals are, and continue to be, an environment where magic happens. Yesterday would prove no different as the field of 14 teams (seven of which are nationally ranked by at least one major poll) would put it all on the line in the ultimate war for bragging rights in which the real winners were not as much the victorious teams, but rather, the masses of people sitting in the stands of the Hudson Valley Community College Athletic Center. All were treated to nine hours of the most exhilarating action found on the planet Earth. Whether “your team” went 3-0 or 0-4, you walked to your car with an ear-to-ear grin, because you knew you had just spent the 24th in the company of warriors.

Big Red Emerge as the Mighty

Posting an unblemished 3-0 record for the day, if you had to single out a specific program that rose to the occasion, there would be no better choice than the Rob Koll-led Big Red crowd favorites. Round-by-round, the Cornell wrestlers found themselves running the gauntlet, having to best a pair of top-12 teams in back-to-back duals in order to keep “the 0” intact.

Jace Bennett, Photo by BV

As expected, sitting at the head of the table in this effort was three-time NCAA Champion Kyle Dake, who was his dominant self, surrendering a mere two points total in his three matches. Perhaps the Lansing native’s biggest win was the only one in which he did not score bonus points, a 5-0 decision over #8 ranked Bubby Graham of the University of Oklahoma. Having watched his teammates drop three bouts in a row to knot the match at 10 apiece, the seasoned veteran knew that in order for the Big Red to regain the momentum, he needed to come up big. And, as he has done countless times before, he delivered in grand fashion, controlling the action for the full seven minutes in pitching the shutout against the Sooner. The win would serve as a catalyst as Cornell would win three of the final four matches of the dual, including Jace Bennett‘s clincher at 197 when he pinned OU’s Brad Johnson half a minute into the second period to provide the Empire State powerhouse with an insurmountable nine point lead. For good measure, big man Stryker Lane would close out the 25-13 dual win with a 5-2 decision over previously nationally-ranked Keldrick Hall. Nick Arujau‘s 34 second pin of the Sooners’ Cody Brewer in a match-up of the #12 vs. #13 ranked wrestlers in the nation would also stand out. Countering a deep shot from his OU opponent, Arujau would lock up a tight cradle and in the blink of an eye, it was goodnight for Mr. Brewer.

Nahshon Garrett, Photo by BV

In a contest that pitted the #8 Big Red against the #9 Chippewas of Central Michigan, it would be Dake (a 14-2 major decision winner over Mike Ottinger), Bennett and freshman Nahshon Garrett taking care of business, with the latter getting Cornell off on the proper footing with a 6-3 decision over #12 Christian Cullinan. Additional key victories would come from the 141/149 duo of returning All-American Mike Nevinger (2-0 over Scott Mattingly) and Chris Villalonga (5-1 over Donnie Corby). As nice and pertinent as these wins might have been in ultimately propelling the EIWA powerhouse to the eventual 17-15 dual victory, the biggest performance might have come in a losing effort when Lane pushed the #3 ranked heavyweight, Jarod Trice, to the second tiebreaker before dropping a 2-1 decision. Because 285 has been a spot in recent times where the Big Red has struggled to find that hammer at the back-end to complement the rest of the lineup, this hard fought win has given Koll and his staff reason to feel optimistic about what the future may hold for them at heavyweight.

In their first dual of the day, the Cornell wrestlers would go 10-for-10, goose-egging the Dragons of Drexel (coached by former Cornell assistant, Matt Azevedo), 40-0.

Illini And Scarlet Knights Also Finish with the Perfecto
Joining the Big Red as the only other teams to avoid the bitter taste of defeat was the #6 ranked University of Illinois and Rutgers University. While neither program wrestled the same caliber of opposition as Cornell, there was no mistaking their dominance as the Illini outscored Binghamton, Princeton, and Maryland 117-16.  Head coach Scott Goodale’s Scarlet Knights were not far behind, tallying an 86-27 edge over a common opponent in the BU Bearcats, as well as fellow New York institutions, Columbia University and the United States Military Academy at West Point (Army).

Opening up the morning with a 46-0 drubbing of the Tigers, the tone was set for the kind of day it would be for the Big 10 conference member. Simply put, anything and everything that could go the way of the Illini did.  125 pound All-American Jesse Delgado would beat Maryland’s Shane Gentry, Daryl Thomas would get his hand raised over Geoff Alexander, BJ Futrell would pin Binghamton’s Joe Bonaldi, etc. As the day continued to progress, one had to wonder if an Illinois wrestler would ever lose a bout pitting nationally ranked competitors against one another. While Tony Dallago would eventually lose to Maryland’s Jimmy Sheptock, it would come only after Illinois posted the biggest individual win of the day when #6 Jordan Blanton avenged his loss from a few weeks ago at the NWCA All-Star Classic, beating #3 Josh Asper of the Terps 3-1 in a fight among the nation’s creme de la creme.

Stephen West, Photo by BV

Spearheading Rutgers to an undefeated record would be upperclassmen — #14 Scott Winston (157), #10 Greg Zannetti (174), and #13 Dan Rinaldi (184). Each tallying at least one victory over a fellow nationally ranked opponent, this trio would be among the seven Scarlet Knight wrestlers to go 3-0. Winning a pair of rather low scoring affairs, it would be the former two who really “did work” against EIWA rival Columbia, as they etched out 3-1 and 1-0 decisions over #11 Jake O’Hara and #13 Stephen West, respectively, en route to the team’s 30-6 victory.  Rinaldi, would earn his signature “w” one dual later when he doubled up Binghamton’s Cody Reed 4-2, one of eight wins for the Garden State school in yet another 30-6 final. In their swan song, the Scarlet Knights would have their closest dual on paper (26-15) against Army, but that would be slightly misleading as they forfeited the 149-pound weight class and inserted a backup at 165 pounds. Rinaldi’s 6-2 victory over Collin Wittmeyer constituted the most significant individual result. Senior Mario Mason, the once highly touted recruit out of Blair Academy, continued to struggle, dropping both of his matches to ranked opponents, 10-2 to the Bearcats’ Donnie Vinson (ranked as high as #1 in some polls; as low as #4 in others) and 4-3 to #10 Steve Santos from Columbia.  Santos remains undefeated this season.

Burning Down the House: Dual of the Day Goes to Maryland/Purdue
In a dual that may have gone overlooked by many because of its location on a far mat in the corner of the HVCC Athletic Center, unofficial honors for “Dual of the Day” unquestionably goes to the back-and-forth slugfest between Maryland and Purdue. A dual of mini streaks, each team would take a turn running off a series of consecutive wins, commencing with the Kerry McCoy-guided Terps jumping out to the early 6-0 lead behind the efforts of Shane Gentry and Geoff Alexander. Ranked towards the bottom of a few polls, each would enter their respective bouts as underdogs on paper. However, as a testament to the cliche about why matches are not wrestled on paper, the two lightweights would find a way to get the job done, as they peeled off back-to-back wins over the #19 and #8 wrestlers in the land, Camden Eppert and Cashe Quiroga by the respective scores of 5-4 and 9-3 to give their team the initial lead.

Unwilling to lie down and play dead, the Boilermakers would waste no time in striking back; and when they attacked, they bit hard, stringing together four straight wins from 141-165 (including two bonus point victories) to launch themselves to the 16-6 lead with only four matches remaining. Playing a prominent role in this rally would be Brandon Nelsen and Tommy Churchard, whose pin and major decision efforts at 141 and 157 would put the Indiana-based program in the driver’s seat.

But alas, you don’t win “Dual of the Day” honors on the strength of one lead change. Nope, with backs against the wall, it would be Maryland’s turn to go streaking, beginning with Asper’s 16-4 major decision against Purdue freshman Chad Welch. Sheptock posted a nearly identical score in his bout against Patrick Kissel, surrendering one extra point (16-5) to bring the ACC contender without a two point margin, 16-14. But again, I say to you, what fun would it be if Maryland simply just came back to win? Instead, drama would ensue when Braden Atwood channeled his inner Cael Sanderson, leading #10 Christian Boley, 11-0 in the third period. Knowing that a major decision would make it impossible for his team to win in regulation, Boley was keenly aware that he would need to get things done in the last two minutes. He responded to the pressure, darn near pulling a rabbit out of his hat when he locked up a tight cradle in the third period, causing the Terp loyalists to go crazy in the stands. While Boley would be unable to earn the fall (Maryland fans might disagree), the five point move would prove to be the difference between victory and defeat. By keeping the bout to a regular decision, the former stud from Brockport High School, would set the stage for what would come next. Needing a technical fall to force criteria or a pin for the win, Maryland big man, Carl Buchholz apparently did not get paid by the hour as he came out like a man on a mission, quickly putting his Purdue opponent on his back and sticking him 24 seconds into the first period to secure the 20-19 win.

#10 Sooners Defeat #11 Chippewas
Unlike the wild dual cited above, when the Mark Cody-coached University of Oklahoma made a move early into the dual against Central Michigan, there would be no looking back as the murderer’s row of Cody Brewer, #1 Kendric Maple, the Lester twins (#8 Nick @149; #12 Matt @157), and Bubby Graham, turned a 3-0 deficit at the onset of the match into a 21-3 advantage late in the dual. Igniting the spark with first period pins in consecutive matches would be Brewer (who did not face #3 Scotti Sentes as originally planned) and Maple, giving the Big 12 school the 12-3 lead. Because everything they do has to bare some resemblance, the Lesters would make it a family affair by etching out back-to-back wins in sudden victory, with Nick getting 4-2 decision over Corby and Matt breaking a 0-0 deadlock with a takedown against Lucas Smith. Adding that always appreciated extra insurance would be Graham who toppled Ottinger 4-1, making it perhaps the toughest day in the wrestling career of the CMU sophomore (lost early to top-ranked Dake).

Central Michigan would get within 10 pouts following a pair of major decisions out of Craig Kelliher and three-time All-American Ben Bennett, but any hopes of a come-from-behind victory would be dashed at 197 when Sooner Brad Johnson reversed his fortune a bit and went from being the goat (loss by fall to Jace Bennett in Cornell dual) to hero when he put the team win on ice with a 6-5 decision over Jackson Lewis. Big Daddy extraordinaire, Trice, would close out the dual with a 7-2 win over Hall in a losing effort for CMU.

Honoring Blatnick; Video Tribute Fitting For the Local Legend

Jeff Blatnick

In what was the most emotional and soul satisfying portion of the afternoon, tournament organizers would awe the crowd with a beautiful video tribute to Section II icon, Jeff Blatnick, who passed away on October 24th from complications following heart surgery. A cancer survivor who would go on to win the gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games, Blatnick never strayed far from his roots as a Niskayuna graduate who got his start on the mat under the tutelage of iconic coach Joe Bena, and reached levels that most of us only dream of, belonging to an exclusive company of men who have won a state title, an NCAA title (for Springfield College), and the Olympic hardware. Only 55 when he passed, Blatnick was coaching at Burnt Hills High School at the time of his death. (For more tributes to Blatnick, see here).

Immediately following the glowing tribute which featured highlights from the gold medal match, as well as interviews/recollections from Bena and Dan Gable, donations were taken to assist the family. And, in the spirit of generosity in which Blatnick lived his life, when it came time to give back, those in attendance did so without hesitation, in some instances actually chasing down the individuals holding the donation cups to make sure they had the privilege of contributing to the cause. It was the most selfless act I have ever seen in my decade plus of going to and covering wrestling matches; it was befitting of Mr. Blatnick and would have made him proud the way he did for the us so many times prior.

Full results from yesterday’s action can be accessed by clicking here:


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