Last year, the EIWA team championship wasn’t decided until the very last match, when American’s Ryan Flores topped Lehigh’s Zach Rey in overtime to clinch a 2.5 point victory for the Big Red over the Mountain Hawks.
This time, there was far less suspense. The Big Red led Navy by 17 points heading into the final session and finished 24.5 points ahead of the Midshipmen in the standings. In the process, Cornell became the first team to ever win seven consecutive EIWA crowns.
“We’re pretty happy with the weekend,” said head coach Rob Koll. “Seven in a row is better than six, that’s for sure. We lose two national champs next year [Kyle Dake and Steve Bosak], which will make it harder to get our eighth in row next year. But we return the other eight placewinners and that’s a pretty good start.”
Leading the way for the Big Red were a trio of champions. Dake maintained his season-long dominance with a 20-5 technical fall against Columbia’s Josh Houldsworth after two pins and a major decision in his first three contests.
While it was Dake’s third EIWA title, it was the first conference crown for freshman Nahshon Garrett and 2012 NCAA champion Steve Bosak.
Garrett got the last session off to a good start for his team with a 6-1 decision over Mark Rappo of Penn in the 125-pound title bout. The Ivy League Rookie of the Year had defeated the Quaker in the tiebreakers earlier in the season.
“It was a great experience, wrestling here this weekend,” Garrett said. “I knew in the finals that he would do some of the things he did the last time we wrestled, like staying on a knee. I did better against it but I know there are still some things I need to work on.”
Right before his interview, Garrett was in charge of carrying the team hardware out of the arena and onto the team bus.
“That trophy is bigger than him,” Koll said, laughing. “Nahshon did well. But the truth is, it’s hard for me to be satisfied with Nahshon, because my expectations for him are just so high.”
The same could be said for Bosak, who took second the previous two seasons at this event, losing in the finals to Lehigh’s Robert Hamlin. The third consecutive EIWA title bout between Bosak and Hamlin didn’t happen as the Mountain Hawk grappler injury defaulted in the semifinals to Mason Bailey of Navy.
Bosak then defeated Bailey 7-1 to earn his spot atop the medal stand. The outcome not only earned a crown for the Big Red senior, but carried implications for the NCAA tournament.
“It was nice for Steve to get that title,” Koll said. “It’s no secret that we don’t want to see Ed Ruth [of Penn State] until the finals, if we can get there. So, we came in knowing that Hamlin needed to lose for that to happen. You don’t want to see medical forfeits at this time of year. I would have preferred that Steve beat Hamlin on the mat. But a loss is a loss. [Hamlin] was losing at the time of the forfeit and I think that will be reflected in the seedings.”
Several other Cornell wrestlers will be thinking about the seedings over the next few weeks as four more punched their tickets to Des Moines. Both Mike Nevinger (141) and Jace Bennett (197) grabbed third, while Chris Villalonga (149) and Stryker Lane (285) were fourth on the podium.
Nevinger lost a tight bout in the semifinals to Franklin & Marshall’s Ricky Durso, the eventual champion. He then fought back to bronze position with some late match heroics. On Saturday morning, he won in sudden victory over Lehigh’s Anthony Salupo and later on, he defeated Harvard’s Steven Keith 3-0 on the strength of an escape and takedown late in the match.
“Mike lost a tough one, but [Durso] is a really good kid who’s very funky,” Koll said. “[Nevinger] didn’t lose that match, Durso found a way to beat him. That happens sometimes. Hopefully, it doesn’t happen again in Iowa.”
While Nevinger’s loss was in the semis, Bennett dropped his quarterfinal bout in the 197 bracket. However, he came storming back, with four consecutive wins, including a pin and a major.
“I’m really proud of the way Jace bounced back all the way to third,” Koll said. “He has made significant improvements this season despite his ups and downs. He’s a guy who is capable of doing some real damage at Nationals.”
Koll believes the same could be said for Villalonga and Lane. The 149-pounder sustained a deep cut over his eye, according to the coach and injury defaulted in the third place bout after winning 7-1 over Ken Theobold of Rutgers earlier in the day to secure his place in Des Moines.
Lane, who was hampered by injuries late in the season, responded to a quarterfinal loss on Friday to earn his first NCAA bid. The heavyweight won three straight in the consolations, including an exciting 8-7 tiebreaker victory over top seed Billy Smith of Rutgers. In that match, Smith had Lane on his back, close to a pin, before the Big Red wrestler fought back to tie the bout and send it overtime.
“Stryker’s a tough kid,” Koll said. “He may not be the biggest or the strongest or the fastest heavyweight in the country, but he has more heart than anyone. We get everything he has every time he goes out there. The good news is that he’s going to Nationals.”
Hoping to join Lane and the rest of Cornell’s qualifiers is 157-pounder Jesse Shanaman, who took sixth in heartbreaking fashion. He lost in sudden victory to Scott Winston of Rutgers in a bout that determined who would pick up the last EIWA automatic bid at that weight.
“There were a lot of positives this weekend and I know our team, alumni and fans are excited about the championship,” Koll said. “But it’s first our NCAA qualifier and I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t get more than seven guys through to NCAAs. I really thought Jesse had back points at the end of his match against Winston. I think the only person who didn’t think so in the whole gym was the referee. We’re still hoping he’ll get a wildcard.”
The Big Red earned several additional honors; or more accurately, Dake did. In addition to being named the tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler, he collected the Fletcher Award for most points scored in a career at EIWAs and the Sheridan Award for most falls in the least time. One honor that didn’t go Cornell’s way was EIWA Coach of the Year. And that didn’t sit well with assistant coach Damion Hahn.
“The EIWAs have been wrestled for over 100 years and in that time no team has ever won seven times in a row. What Rob [Koll] did with this team was make history and I think it’s a travesty that he didn’t receive recognition for it. Do you give the Outstanding Wrestler award to someone who almost wins? I have tremendous respect for Bruce Burnett, who is a great coach. Navy did a phenomenal job this weekend and the whole year. Hats off to them. But I think the EIWA coaches made the wrong call.”
Hahn also acknowledged, however, that his disappointment with that decision was one of few negatives over the two-day period for the Big Red.
“Everyone wrestled tough and it showed with all 10 of our guys placing,” Hahn said. “Some guys are disappointed in how they did, but for the most part, we can’t complain. We’re walking away with our seventh title in a row and we’re walking away virtually healthy. That’s a good weekend. Now, we’re on to bigger and better things.”