Cornell wrestling head coach Rob Koll knew there would be many surprises this year. But who would have guessed one such surprise had been a two-year-old, red-haired rodent running around a Garden City, Kan. kitchen so many years ago?
That child, now 19, has played a pivotal role in the Red’s rise to the top of the Ivy League and the nation. That red-haired, 141-pound Ivy Rookie of the Year is freshman Jordan Leen.
Leen, also among the six all-Ivy first team selections, currently holds a 23-14 record and is 5-0 in league action. In addition, Leen placed third at the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) championships last weekend, thereby clinching a spot at this year’s NCAA tournament.
“Jordan stepped it up and as a freshman, I didn’t expect that he’d mature this quickly,” said senior co-captain Tyler Baier. “He’s really impressed me … and surprised every one of us.”
Perhaps the only person not surprised by the Tennessean’s success is Leen himself. A Soddy Daisy, Tenn. native, Leen was a four-time state champion in the 130-pound weight class. However, according to Koll, Tennessee is still not exactly a hotbed for wrestlers.
Koll actually met Leen’s father, Mark — a junior college wrestling coach — years ago on a recruiting trip when Jordan was two. Mark and Koll kept in contact over the years, but the Cornell coach was not sure whether Jordan would able to compete on an already competitive Cornell roster.
Luckily for Koll and the Red, the coach decided to recruit Jordan. The Tennessean, who was being courted by Harvard, was attracted to the coaches and the wrestling program.
Still, Leen did not get off to the fastest of starts as a Cornell wrestler. Competing for a starting spot with several teammates, including sophomores Charlie Agozzino and Matt Easter, Leen did not exactly make the best initial impression.
“You watch him wrestle in practice, and you’d think he’s fourth string. And then when you watch him in a tournament or match, he’s a completely different person,” Koll said. “When everybody else in the room beats him like the proverbial red-haired step child, he wasn’t that impressive. I knew he would get better … but I would be lying to you if I said that he would come this far this quickly.”
Leen ascended to the starting position earlier this year and has never looked back. He said that during his freshman year, there were many times when he doubted that he could reach the smaller goals he set out for himself, but the assurance of wrestling every match gave him an added boost.
“It’s very tough for a true freshman to come in and beat out two guys who have already been in the program for a year,” said senior co-captain Joe Mazzurco. “For what he’s been able to accomplish, it’s unbelievable.”
After Leen stormed through Ivy League competition, including a 6-4 sudden death victory win over Penn’s then-No. 16 Doug McGraw, he suffered a disappointment last weekend after being pinned by Army’s Patrick Simpson in his opening match.
However, Leen bounced back with four consecutive wins to take third place — including a tight, 1-0 win over McGraw. On Tuesday, Leen was unanimously named the league’s Rookie of the Year.
“I was a little surprised because I’ve had a rocky season,” Leen said. “But it’s definitely a big honor and it’s great to get.”
Another wrestler who qualified for Nationals last weekend was sophomore Joey Hooker (165-pounds). Hooker, who had to wait to see if he would earn a wild card birth in the season-ending competition after placing fourth at EIWAs, said that “he couldn’t stop smiling” after he made it.
“I thought that going into the season, I thought I could [make Nationals],” Hooker said. “I had a couple of rough spots during the season, but I picked myself back up.”
Along with Leen, senior Travis Lee — who was also named Ivy League Wrestler of the Year for the second time in his career — Mazzurco (174), Baier (184), sophomore Jerry Rinaldi (197) and junior Dustin Manotti (149) were on the all-Ivy first team. Hooker, junior John Cholish (157) and senior Mike Mormile (125) were named to the all-Ivy second team.
But the Red’s main goal all year long was sending wresters to Nationals, and it accomplished that last weekend by having nine qualifiers — a program record. Although it lost to Lehigh in the team competition by 2.5 points, Baier said that the Mountain Hawks only sent seven wrestlers to Nationals and that his squad would prefer to have more qualifiers.
“I knew we had a very good team at the beginning of the season,” Koll said. “[But] I’ve never had a year like this. This is probably my most enjoyable season to date.”
Archived article by Brian Tsao
Sun Assistant Sports Editor