March 29, 2004

Grapplers Strong at Nationals

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“One half-step too early or too late, and you don’t quite make it, one second too fast or too slow, you don’t quite catch it,” Al Pacino admonished his players during his halftime speech in the football flick, Any Given Sunday. “The six inches in front of your face,” he said, “make the difference between winning and losing.”

Few words more aptly describe the intense competition and slim margin for error the wrestling team experienced at last week’s NCAA championships held at the Savvis Center in St. Louis, Mo., where the grapplers finished in 11th place with three All-Americans. Sophomore Dustin Manotti led the charge for the Red, improving four places over his finish last year, to earn a fourth-place medal at 149 pounds. Defending national champion, junior Travis Lee, on the other hand, dropped four notches to take fifth at 133 pounds, and senior Matt Greenberg finished his Cornell career in fifth place in the 197-pound bracket. The team’s finish was its third straight in the top 20 and the seventh-highest in program history.

“Three All-Americans is fantastic. It’s only the third time we’ve ever had that, and we have the basis of a phenomenal team coming back as well,” said head coach Rob Koll. “You get to nationals and you look at teams who didn’t place in the top 10 and you realize nothing is guaranteed at that level. I can’t say I’m thrilled but I can’t say I’m disappointed either.”

Following last year’s 10th place finish, the squad began this season with hopes of finishing among the top five teams in the country. After qualifying eight wrestlers for nationals — tied for the most of any team — the Red entered the tournament confident it could achieve that goal. Entering the second round of competition, six of those eight grapplers remained in contention, and the team found itself in fourth place, making those expectations even more realistic.

But each successive round saw fewer and fewer Cornell singlets take to the mat, and team felt its grip on the fourth-place spot slipping.

Most notably absent in the winner’s circle was Lee, who lost his semifinal bout to Iowa State’s Zach Roberson, 6-3. After notching three wins in the tournament’s opening rounds, Roberson, the fifth seed, scored two takedowns on Lee within the match’s first period to take the lead, 4-1. In the second period, Roberson nearly extended his lead again with another takedown, but an immediate reversal by Lee prompted the referee to award two points to Lee instead, bringing the match close at 5-3.

Despite Lee’s best efforts in the final two minutes, Roberson’s defense proved too good, and his offense too effective, for Lee to counter. The senior Cyclone added one more point for riding time, bringing the bout to a close with a final score of 6-3.

“He lost his first match to Roberson, a four-time All-American and national champion,” Koll said. “[Travis’s] weight class was unbelievable. Roberson wrestled a perfect match. In those seven minutes he just outwrestled Travis.”

Manotti experienced similar frustration in his semifinal match against Oklahoma State’s No. 2 seed, Zach Esposito, who beat Manotti, 5-2. Esposito put points on the scorecard first in that match with a takedown in the first period. Manotti escaped, earning one point, to close the first period down one, but he never got any closer.

Esposito escaped Manotti’s grasp at the start of the second period and added one another takedown with 24 seconds left on the clock to close the second with a 5-1 lead. An escape in the third gave Manotti another point, but neither wrestler scored again.

In the consolation round held the same day, Greenberg found himself victorious, though his win came at a high price. Facing Nebraska’s No. 5 ranked B.J. Padden, Greenberg found himself in a 2-0 hole following Padden’s opening takedown in the first period. Soon thereafter, the Cornhusker had Greenberg in the air and looked as if he would extend his lead by two more points, but Padden illegally slammed Greenberg to the mat headfirst, stopping the match. The fall forced Greenberg to forfeit the match due to injury, but officials ruled that Padden’s throw was unsportsmanlike and penalized Nebraska one team point while awarding Greenberg the win by medical default. Thus, the senior advanced into the next round and became Cornell’s third All-American.

“Matt was wrestling a kid he’d beaten before, and the kid the slammed him once. It was an illegal slam but he didn’t get called for it. Then, about 20 seconds later, the kid slammed Matt again, pretty much knocking him out. I watched it on tape the other day, and it was one of the worst slams I’ve ever seen — like something you’d see on television,” Koll said. “The officials wouldn’t let [Greenberg] finish the match and they wouldn’t let him wrestle his match later that night either. He had a pretty good concussion, but they cleared him to wrestle the last match of his career early the next morning.”

Though not competing in the semifinals, three other Cornell wrestlers fought admirably in the tournament’s opening matches. Senior captain Tyler Baier opened his second trip to NCAAs with an impressive 11-0 major decision against Curtis Yeager of Millersville in the 174-pound bracket. The win gave Cornell valuable team points, but Baier could not overcome No. 4 seeded Ryan Lange of Purdue in his next bout, losing a close 3-2 battle. The loss put Baier in the wrestlebacks, where he beat Michigan’s Nick Roy, 9-2. Following that match, Baier faced Ed Pawlack of Buffalo in a win-or-die match. Despite an excellent effort by Baier, Pawlack won the match, 8-5, ending the Red captain’s hopes of medaling.

In similar scenarios, junior Joe Mazzurco and freshman Jerry Rinaldi also battled back from early losses to notch wins but found themselves outmatched and out of competition in later rounds. “Scott Roth got headlocked and pinned, otherwise I thought he would have won his match. Tyler Baier also wrestled well. He and Mazzurco both won two matches,” Koll said. “They faced some great kids in the wrestleback. It’s the national tournament and there are very few lucky flaws. You’ve got to create your own luck.”

After Lee and Manotti fell from the championship bracket, both wrestlers entered the consolation semifinals, while Greenberg medical forfeited his next match and advanced to the seventh place bout.

In his third place match, Lee faced defending 133-pound national champion, Johnny Thompson of Oklahoma. Lee had beaten Thompson already this season, but the Sooner entered the rematch with a vengeance. In the first period, Lee scored a takedown, but Thompson put himself on the board with an escape and added another point at the beginning of the second period to knot the score at 2 points apiece. Then, in the most critical point of the match, Thompson took Lee to the mat and held him for a three-point near fall, making the score 7-2. The score went to 8-6 when Lee added a pair of escapes and a takedown of his own in the third period, but Thompson reversed and held on for a 10-8 win.

“Thompson was a national champion the last two years, but Travis actually outwrestled him in that match, and got hit with a five-point move late in the third period to lose the match. I actually thought Travis was a better wrestler,” Koll said. “Travis had one bad match and it cost him the national championship.”

Manotti’s match against 10th-seeded Jeff Ecklof, also from Oklahoma, ended more favorably for the sophomore. Manotti broke a 3-3 first-period stalemate with a takedown which put Ecklof on his back. Sensing the opportunity, Manotti cinched his hold tight and pinned Ecklof at 2:52, giving him a berth in the third place bout versus Michigan’s No. 4 Ryan Churella.

Churella proved a more difficult opponent.

The two wrestlers spent the first period feeling each other out and working for position. After trading takedowns and escapes, Churella took Manotti to the mat with 20 seconds remaining in the opening stanza to take a 5-3 lead. In the remaining two periods, the Wolverine also scored another takedown and got r
iding time en route to a 9-4 victory over Manotti.

“Dustin wrestled great and he was in every match. Last year he took eighth and I felt he was fortunate to take eighth because he got beat up by a couple of kids,” Koll said. “This year he took forth and could have been in the finals. We’re really excited about him because, of course, he’s only a sophomore.”

Despite the loss, Manotti felt good about his accomplishment and his improvement over last year. Disappointed but not discouraged, Lee emerged triumphant in his final match of the three-day event. Against fifth-seeded Foley Dowd of Michigan, Lee performed flawlessly — perhaps better than he had in any of his other matches — preventing the Wolverine from scoring a single point while earning 12 of his own in a major decision good for fifth place.

To cap the Red’s day, Greenberg defeated Buffalo’s Kyle Cerminara, 6-2, to take the seventh-place medal. Neither wrestler could mount an attack in the first period, but Greenberg found himself leading in the bout’s final two periods after recording a takedown, escape, and near fall points.

Reflecting on his team’s performance, Koll felt impressed the effort he saw, though he had hoped for a better result.

Yet whatever failings the wrestlers may find in their own performances, the team’s season can certainly be considered successful. The Red went undefeated in the Ivy League to win it second straight conference crown, while also placing third at the EIWA championships and compiling and overall 11-6 in dual meets. Moreover, nine members of the team earned All-Ivy honors, half of them receiving first-team All-Ivy selections following the tournament’s close.

And, though Koll would have preferred a better outcome for his team, he was nonetheless proud of his wrestlers’ effort.

“It was the first time we’ve had eight guys wrestling on the second day. That’s just unheard of. We’ve never had that kind of talent wrestling at the national tournament,” he said. “A lot of those guys are coming back next year too, which looks really good for our program.”

Archived article by Everett Hullverson
Sun Assistant Sports Editor