November 19, 2003

Grapplers Hunt for National Crown

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On the wall of fame in the Friedman Wrestling Center hangs the world’s only extraterrestrial singlet. Next to it, a note from former Cornell wrestler and current astronaut Ed Lu ’84, who took the spandex uniform to outerspace in 1997:

“Cornell wrestling can now claim something that no other team can,” he wrote. “It’s truly out of this world.”

Though the singlet’s brief intergalactic trip brought the wrestlers international notoriety, the team has its sights set on a more earthly goal this year: winning a national championship.

“We have three guys on the team who could win it this year, and a few more ranked in the 10 through 12 spots who could place,” said head coach Rob Koll. “Those guys are taking us to the next level.”

Last season served as the springboard Koll and his athletes needed to vault into the national spotlight. From November through February, the team traversed the country taking on some of the sport’s toughest competition. In dual matches, the Red beat perennial powerhouses Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa State, and Michigan. The grapplers also placed sixth at the prestigious national duals and won the Ivy League tournament. A 10th place finish at NCAAs iced the cake.

Though proud of the accomplishments, neither Koll nor his wrestlers felt satiated. Now a clock above the Friedman Center’s main mat shows exactly how much time remains until they return to nationals in the spring: 138 days, 16 hours, and 48 minutes.

Koll wants to take advantage of each second.

“This year, we’ll focus on making practices shorter and more effective,” he said. “We want to maximize the time our guys spend here by drilling on an individual basis and specialize on what each wrestler needs to do to improve.”

The team, particularly several key returning starters, will benefit from the new regimen. At 125 pounds, two-time NCAA qualifier senior Alejandro Alvarez will look to finish his career on the podium at nationals, while junior Travis Lee hopes to win his second straight national championship after moving up to the 133-pound weight class. Sophomore All-American Dustin Manotti will return to the mat at 149 pounds, and 174-pound junior Tyler Baier hopes to make the All-American squad as well. Finally, senior 197-pounder Matt Greenberg looks to cap his final season on the Hill with a medal in March.

Some of the country’s best high school wrestlers will also compete for spots on the roster. According to Intermat, a national wrestling poll, Cornell brought in the sixth best recruiting class in the country this year — far better than any Ivy competition and close behind several Big 10 and Big 12 schools.

Despite the great outlook, tough competition and personal tragedy may make this a tough season.

“Penn has everyone back, and Harvard is tooled up this year,” said Koll of the Red’s most prominent Ivy competitors. “Across the board, the Ivy teams will give us much tougher competition.”

Nationally-ranked opponents Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Lehigh, not to mention a slew of Big 10 and Big 12 teams will also test the team’s mettle.

The team’s biggest challenge may come off the mat, however. On Sept. 22, the wrestlers lost Scot Elwood ’06, one of their teammates who died after inadvertently hopping a fence bordering Fall Creek Gorge.

“Scot was a great guy, and he would have reached his goals both on and off the mat,” said Koll softly. “His death was tough on the guys, but we want to learn from it so that we know he did not die in vain.”

Though painful, the tragedy inspired the team, and it knows that best way to honor Scot is to concentrate on the task at hand: winning.

“Every single one of our guys could win, but you have to be perfect that day,” concluded Koll. “I expect nothing less than a national championship, and we’re working toward it.”

Archived article by Everett Hullverson