Sophomore Travis Lee once said that he wasn’t afraid of wrestling anyone in his weight class. After this past weekend, however, 125-pound wrestlers everywhere will have a hard time saying the same thing about Lee.
Lee, along with seven other Cornell matmen, recently returned from the NCAA 2003 wrestling championships. Senior Clint Wattenberg and freshman Dustin Manotti earned All-American status with their wins, while Lee also garnered the distinction of being the 2003, 125-pound NCAA champion.
“At that moment, I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe I won a national title.’ I was so excited and I was so happy,” said Lee. “It was just an amazing feeling. I looked up and the crowd was cheering … it was breathtaking.”
While Lee’s finish may have been breathtaking, his tournament run had the opposite effect. Several close matches caused fans and coaches to hold their breaths as the sophomore compiled a five-match win streak, all while facing some of the United States’ top collegiate wrestlers.
“It was a heck of a tournament for him,” said head coach Rob Koll. “There were so many good kids in his weight class and he had extremely tough matches from the quarters on.”
The finals, however, proved to be especially challenging for Lee. His opponent was No. Chris Fleeger from Purdue, who was coming off of 3-0 and 10-0 decisions from his previous two matches. Still, Lee remained confident and appeared ready.
“At the college level anyone can beat anyone else on any given day,” Lee said. “I don’t let myself think negative, I just feel that I can’t allow myself to think that way, or else it will probably happen.”
Fleeger got on the board early, taking down Lee just 48-seconds into the first period. Lee soon escaped, however, to draw within one. Another take down, and a swap of escapes soon had the score knotted up at 4-4.
With 19 seconds left, Lee scored a takedown and held on to erase his opponent’s riding time. He was rewarded with a 6-4 win and the NCAA 125-pound title.
“You could see it in his eyes,” said Koll of Lee’s intensity. “You could see it and you could feel it.”
While Lee rallied for personal victory, it was Wattenberg that helped push Cornell into the top ten. After a tough loss to Iowa’s Jessiman Smith, the senior had sustained injuries to his knee and eye. Still, the senior’s sense of duty motivated him for one final win.
“There was just no way I was going to ask him to do it, so I’m glad he didn’t ask me,” said Koll in regards to Wattenberg’s condition. “He just knew he had to do it. By winning that match, he enabled us to get into top ten.”
Koll also spoke of the 184 pounder’s loss to Smith, and his passion for winning.
“He was winning the match, and made a mistake in trying to ride the kid,” he said. “The hardest thing to do when your dreams are shattered is to wrestle hard and come back — but he did.”
Manotti, while personally displeased with his finish, greatly pleased Koll.
“It’s a great thing when you have a freshman who finishes as an all-American and is disappointed,” Koll said.
Koll responded to Manotti’s disappointment by reminding him that he has joined an elite club, which includes the likes of Lee.
“When I put it that way, he kind of understood the true significance of his accomplishment,” said the coach.
Overall, the team finished 10th with 52 points. The total put the Red two and a half points ahead of Northern Iowa, and just one point behind No. 9 Illinois. Cornell also saw wins from seven of its eight qualifiers, six of whom will return next season.
“We’re going in the right direction,” said Koll. “With two All-Americans returning, and four other guys who won matches at nationals, it’s just really exciting and an unbelievable situation to be in as a coach.”
Still, as Cornell stands in the spotlight of national wrestling recognition, the total picture of victory has yet to be realized by at least one wrestler.
“I don’t think it has quite sunken in yet,” said Lee. “I think about it, and I’m an NCAA champ now. It’s maybe something I hoped to accomplish by my senior year in college. Now that I’ve done it, I need to take a step back and see where I go from here. It’s just a great feeling.
Archived article by Matt Janiga