March 16, 2004

Not a Vacation to Disney

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Necks wrenched, joints twisted, lungs gasped, and faces grimaced at wrestling practice last night. Even head coach Rob Koll found himself face up on the mat, stars swirling around his head, after getting stunned during a warm-up match.

“That’s the hardest I’ve banged it in a while,” he said, blinking.

In spite of the pained expressions and woozy noggins, the grapplers and their coach are smiling: they’re about to leave for spring break.

This afternoon, defending national champion, junior Travis Lee, along with eight members of the wrestling team and their coaches, will board a plane leaving Ithaca, but they aren’t going to Disneyland. The destination of choice, instead: beautiful St. Louis, Missouri, host of the 2004 NCAA wrestling championships. Though the banks of the Mississippi river provide wonderful sunbathing opportunities, the team doesn’t plan on getting tan in the Show Me state. Ideally, these grapplers would rather spend three days indoors under the lights in Savvis Center.

“I’ve felt great in practice, and things are going well right now,” Lee said. “I feel really confident I can do it this year, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. We’ll see how it turns out.”

Two weekends ago at the EIWA championships, Cornell placed third as a team and qualified eight of its ten-members for the national tournament. Now, with only a few days left before the first matches of nationals begin, the grapplers are preparing to do what they have trained for since the end of last season: beating the country’s best wrestlers.

A digital clock hanging above the main mat at the Freidman Wrestling Center reminds them of that goal every day. Yesterday afternoon, it displayed 2:19:05. The numbers — days, hours, minutes until nationals begins — have been ticking since the Red returned to Ithaca last year with one national champion and a 10th place team finish. The prominent digits also motivated the grapplers all year.

“Eight wrestlers is the least I expected to take to nationals this year. Anything less would have disappointed me,” Koll said. “Then again, eight ties the record for the most guys we’ve ever taken, and only two teams in the country are taking more, so I shouldn’t really complain.”

For seven of the Red’s men — freshman Jerry Rinaldi, sophomore Dustin Manotti, juniors Joe Mazzurco, and Mike Mormile, and seniors Scott Roth, Tyler Baier, and Matt Greenberg — the trip is a chance to become an All-American for the first time, finish stronger than last year, or graduate with wins against the country’s best wrestlers.

For Lee, however, it is a chance to make history.

With his win at the EIWAs this year, Lee became the first Cornellian to capture three straight Eastern titles beginning as a freshman. As a sophomore last year, he claimed the national title in the 125-pound weight class. The championship was only the seventh in Cornell history, and the first since David Hirsch brought the 126-pound title back to East Hill a decade ago. The points Lee earned for his victory also helped the Red break the top 10 as a team for the first time since 1993.

“It feels great to know that I’ve done something to be up there with the greats,” Lee said. “It’s great to be a part of the history of Cornell wrestling.”

But with the accolades and awards has come pressure. On the road to his championship last year, Lee accumulated a perfect 34-0 record. That streak extended into the early part of this season, when San Francisco State’s Donald Lockett beat Lee, 6-5, in the opening round of the Midlands in January. The loss was Lee’s first since the 2002 NCAA tournament and his only one this season. It could not have come at a worse time.

In his first two years at Cornell, Lee had wrestled as a 125-pounder. This year, he moved up to 133. Initially, neither he nor his coaches knew how well he would adapt to bigger opponents. When unranked Lockett won, some skeptics questioned whether or not the decision to go up would cost Lee a national title.

“I think some people said that I might not be able to do it again. There were message boards on the internet where they would write stuff about the loss, saying I might not be able to do it,” he recalls. “It was a bit of a wake up call for me, but I tried not to get caught up in it all.”

Though he would have enjoyed extending his winning streak through this year’s title bout, Lee feels content knowing that the loss was a fluke, that he will not abrogate his NCAA throne.

The NCAA seeding officials have bet on it. When wrestling starts on Thursday, Lee will enter the tournament with the first seed in his weight class. Already this season, he has racked up 33 wins, including one over defending national champion Johhny Thompson of Oklahoma State, and two more against the former No. 2 and No. 3 ranked wrestlers in the country.

“To put it in perspective, there’s no one even close to Travis right now. All his wins against his best opponents have been two or three point victories,” Koll said. “Travis is the kind of guy who never loses to a wrestler he’s already beaten, and not too many people beat him.”

A win this year would also vault Lee onto a pedestal occupied by only one other Cornell wrestler, Dave Auble ’60. Between 1957 and 1960, Auble won two NCAA titles and three EIWA championships. He was also voted outstanding wrestler at the 1959 and 1960 Eastern tournaments and the 1960 NCAA tournament. Four years after graduating, he placed fourth at the Tokyo Olympics.

“He follows Travis and the team,” Koll said of Auble. “He’s amazed at what Travis has done, and he’s a huge fan.”

Hopefully, Auble and the rest of us will have something to continue rooting for on March 20th, the day of the championship bouts. Koll has confidence that we will.

“You don’t think a kid like Travis can get much better, but he is. He’s better, stronger, and quicker than he was last year,” he concluded. “I don’t know how great it would feel for him to win a second championship. I only know how disappointed he’d be if he didn’t.”

Archived article by Everett Hullverson